Archive for the ‘Fear’ Category

Defy success and choose innovation.

Innovation is difficult because it requires novelty. And novelty is difficult because it’s different than last time. And different than last time is difficult because you’ve got to put yourself out there.  And putting yourself out there is difficult because no one wants to be judged negatively.

Success, no matter how small, reinforces what was done last time. There’s safety in doing it again. The return may be small, but the wheels won’t fall off.  You may run yourself into the ground over time, but you won’t fail catastrophically. You may not reach your growth targets, but you won’t get fired for slowly destroying the brand. In short, you won’t fail this year, but you will create the causes and conditions for a race to the bottom.

Diminishing returns are real. As a system improves it becomes more difficult to improve.  A ten percent improvement is more difficult every year and at some point, improvement becomes impossible.  In that way, success doesn’t breed success, it breeds more effort for less return. And as that improvement per unit effort decreases, it becomes ever more important (and ever more difficult) to do something different (to innovate).

Paradoxically, success makes it more difficult to innovate.

Success brings profits that could fund innovation. But, instead, success brings the expectation of predictable growth.  Last year we were successful and grew 10%. We know the recipe, so this year let’s grow 12%. We can do what we did last year, but do it more efficiently.  A sound bit of logic, except it assumes the rules haven’t changed and that competitors haven’t improved. But rules and competitors always change, and, at some point the the same old recipe for success runs out of gas.

It’s time to do something new (to innovate) when the same old effort brings reduced results. That change in output per unit effort means the recipe is tiring and it’s time for a new one. But with a new approach comes unpredictability, and for those who demand predictability, a new approach is scary. Sure, the yearly trend of reduced return on investment should scare them more, but it doesn’t.  The devil you know is less scary than the one you don’t.  But, it shouldn’t be.

Calculate your revenue dollars per sales associate and plot it over time.  If the metric is flat over the last three years, it was time to innovate three years ago.  If it’s decreasing over the last three years, it was time to innovate six years ago.

If you wait to innovate until revenue per sales person is flat, you waited too long.

No one likes to be judged negatively, more than that, no one likes their company to collapse and lose their job. So, choose to do something new (to innovate) and choose the possibility of being judged. That’s much better than choosing to go out of business.

Image credit – Michel Rathwell

The Courage To Speak Up

If you see things differently than others, congratulations.  You’re thinking for yourself.

If you find yourself pressured into thinking like everyone else, that’s a sign your opinion threatens. It’s too powerful to be dismissed out-of-hand, and that’s why they want to shut you up.

If the status quo is angered by your theory, you’re likely onto something.  Stick to your guns.

If your boss doesn’t want to hear your contrarian opinion, that’s because it cannot be easily dismissed. That’s reason enough to say it.

If you disagree in a meeting and your sentiment is actively dismissed, dismiss the dismisser. And say it again.

If you’re an active member of the project and you are not invited to the meeting, take it as a compliment. Your opinion is too powerful to defend against. The only way for the group-think to survive is to keep you away from it. Well done.

If your opinion is actively and repeatedly ignored, it’s too powerful to be acknowledged.  Send a note to someone higher up in the organization.  And if that doesn’t work, send it up a level higher still. Don’t back down.

If you look into the future and see a train wreck, set up a meeting with the conductor and tell them what you see.

When you see things differently, others will try to silence you and tell you you’re wrong. Don’t believe them.  The world needs people like you who see things as they are and have the courage to speak the truth as they see it.

Thank you for your courage.

Image credit – Cristian V.

For innovation to flow, drive out fear.

The primary impediment to innovation is fear, and the prime directive of any innovation system should be to drive out fear.

A culture of accountability, implemented poorly, can inject fear and deter innovation.  When the team is accountable to deliver on a project but are constrained to a fixed scope, a fixed launch date and resources, they will be afraid.  Because they know that innovation requires new work and new work is inherently unpredictable, they rightly recognize the triple accountability – time, scope and resources – cannot be met.  From the very first day of the project, they know they cannot be successful and are afraid of the consequences.

A culture of accountability can be adapted to innovation to reduce fear.  Here’s one way. Keep the team small and keep them dedicated to a single innovation project. No resource sharing, no swapping and no double counting. Create tight time blocks with clear work objectives, where the team reports back on a fixed pitch (weekly, monthly). But make it clear that they can flex on scope and level of completeness.  They should try to do all the work within the time constraints but they must know that it’s expected the scope will narrow or shift and the level of completeness will be governed by the time constraint.  Tell them you believe in them and you trust them to do their best, then praise their good judgement at the review meeting at the end of the time block.

Innovation is about solving new problems, yet fear blocks teams from trying new things. Teams like to solve problems that are familiar because they have seen previous teams judged negatively for missing deadlines. Here’s the logic – we’d rather add too little novelty than be late.  The team would love to solve new problems but their afraid, based on past projects, that they’ll be chastised for missing a completion date that’s disrespectful of the work content and level of novelty.  If you want the team to solve new problems, give them the tools, time, training and a teacher so they can select different problems and solve them differently. Simply put – create the causes and conditions for fear to quietly slink away so innovation will flow.

Fear is the most powerful inhibitor. But before we can lessen the team’s fear we’ve got to recognize the causes and conditions that create it. Fear’s job is to keep us safe, to keep us away from situations that have been risky or dangerous.  To do this, our bodies create deep memories of those dangerous or scary situations and creates fear when it recognizes similarities between the current situation and past dangerous situations.  In that way, less fear is created if the current situation feels differently from situations of the past where people were judged negatively.

To understand the causes and conditions that create fear, look back at previous projects.  Make a list of the projects where project members were judged negatively for things outside their control such as: arbitrary launch dates not bound by the work content, high risk levels driven by unjustifiable specifications, insufficient resources, inadequate tools, poor training and no teacher.  And make a list of projects where team members were praised.  For the projects that praised, write down attributes of those projects (e.g., high reuse, low technical risk) and their outcomes (e.g., on time, on cost).  To reduce fear, the project team will bend new projects toward those attributes and outcomes. Do the same for projects that judged negatively for things outside the project teams’ control. To reduce fear, the future project teams will bend away from those attributes and outcomes.

Now the difficult parts.  As a leader, it’s time to look inside.  Make a list of your behaviors that set (or contributed to) causes and conditions that made it easy for the project team to be judged negatively for the wrong reasons.  And then make a list of your new behaviors that will create future causes and conditions where people aren’t afraid to solve new problems in new ways.

Image credit — andrea floris

You can’t innovate when…

Your company believes everything should always go as planned.

You still have to do your regular job.

The project’s completion date is disrespectful of the work content.

Your company doesn’t recognize the difference between complex and complicated.

The team is not given the tools, training, time and a teacher.

You’re asked to generate 500 ideas but you’re afraid no one will do anything with them.

You’re afraid to make a mistake.

You’re afraid you’ll be judged negatively.

You’re afraid to share unpleasant facts.

You’re afraid the status quo will be allowed to squash the new ideas, again.

You’re afraid the company’s proven recipe for success will stifle new thinking.

You’re afraid the project team will be staffed with a patchwork of part time resources.

You’re afraid you’ll have to compete for funding against the existing business units.

You’re afraid to build a functional prototype because the value proposition is poorly defined.

Project decisions are consensus-based.

Your company has been super profitable for a long time.

The project team does not believe in the project.

Image credit Vera & Gene-Christophe

Everyday Leadership

What if your primary role every day was to put other people in a position to succeed? What would you start doing? What would you stop doing? Could you be happy if they got the credit and you didn’t? Could you feel good about their success or would you feel angry because they were acknowledged for their success? What would happen if you ran the experiment?

What if each day you had to give ten compliments?  Could you notice ten things worthy of compliment?  Could you pay enough attention?  Would it be difficult to give the compliments? Would it be easy? Would it scare you? Would you feel silly or happy?  Who would be the first person you’d compliment? Who is the last person you’d compliment? How would they feel? What could it hurt to try it for a week?

What if each day you had to ask five people if you can help them?  Could you do it even for one day?  Could you ask in a way the preserves their self-worth?  Could you ask in a sincere way? How do you think they would feel if you asked them?  How would you feel if they said yes? How about if they said no?  Would the experiment be valuable?   Would it be costly?  What’s in the way of trying it for a day?  How do you feel about what’s in the way?

What if you made a mistake and you had to apologize to five people?  Could you do it?  Would you do it?  Could you say “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. How can I make it up to you?” and nothing else?  Could you look them in the eye and apologize sincerely?  If your apology was sincere, how would they feel?  And how would you feel?  Next time you make a mistake, why not try to apologize like you mean it?  What could it hurt? Why not try?

What if every day you had to thank five people?  Could you find five things to be thankful for?  Would you make the effort to deliver the thanks face-to-face? Could you do it for two days? Could you do it for a week?  How would you feel if you actually did it for a week?  How would the people around you feel?  How do you feel about trying it?

What if every day you tried to be a leader?

Image credit – Pedro Ribeiro Simões

A Healthy Dose of Heresy

Anything worth its salt will meet with resistance. More strongly, if you get no resistance, don’t bother.

There’s huge momentum around doing what worked last time.  Same as last time but better; build on success; leverage last year’s investment; we know how to do it. Why are these arguments so appealing? Two words: comfort and perceived risk. Why these arguments shouldn’t be so appealing: complacency and opportunity cost.

We think statically and selectively.  We look in the rear view mirror, write down what happened and say “let’s do that again.” Hey, why not? We made the initial investment and did the leg work.  We created the script.  Let’s get some mileage out of it.  And we selectively remember the positive elements and actively forget the uncertainty of the moment.  We had no idea it was going to work, and we forget that part. It worked better than we imagined and we remember the “working better” part. And we forget we imagined it would go differently. And we forget that was a long time ago and we don’t take the time to realize things are different now. The rules are dynamic, yet our thinking is static.

We compete with the past tense. We did this and they did that, and, therefore, that’s what will happen again. So wrong. We’ve got smarter; they’ve got smarter; battery capacity has tripled; power electronics are twice as efficient; efficiency of solar panels has doubled; CRISPR can edit our genes.  The rules are different but the sheet music hasn’t changed. The established players sing the same songs and the upstarts cut them off at the knees.

If you were successful last time and everyone thinks your proposed project is a good idea, ball it up and throw it in the trash. It reeks of stale thinking. If your project plan is dismissed by the experts because it contradicts the tired recipe of success, congratulations! You may be onto something!  Stomp on the accelerator and don’t look back.

If your proposal meets with consensus, hang your head and try again. You missed the mark. If they scream “heretic” and want to burn you at the stake, double down.  If the CEO isn’t adamantly against it, you’re not trying hard enough.  If she throws you out of the room half way through your presentation, you may have a winner!

Yesterday’s recipes for success are today’s worn paths of mediocracy.

If you’re confident it will work, you shouldn’t be. If you’re filled with electric excitement it might actually work and scared to death it might end in a wild fireball of burn metal toxic fumes, what are you waiting for?!

Heretics were burned at the stake because the establishment knew they were right.  Goddard was right and the New York Times wasn’t.  Decades later they apologized – rockets work is space. And though the Qualifiers and Pope Paul V were unanimous in their dismissal of Galileo and Copernicus, the heretics had it right – the sun is at the center of everything.

Don’t seek out dissent, but if all you get is consensus, be wary. Don’t be adversarial, but if all you get is open arms, question your thesis. Don’t be confrontational, but if all you get is acceptance, something’s wrong.

If there’s no resistance, work on something else.

Image Credit WPI (Robert Goddard’s Lab)

Innovation – Words vs. Actions

Innovation isn’t a thing in itself.  Companies need to meet their growth objectives and innovation is the word experts use to describe the practices and behaviors they think will maximize the likelihood of meeting those growth objectives. Innovation is a catchword phrase that has little to no meaning.  Don’t ask about innovation, ask how to meet your business objectives. Don’t ask about best practices, ask how has your company been successful and how to build on that success.  Don’t ask how the big companies have done it – you’re not them.  And, the behaviors of the successful companies are the same behaviors of the unsuccessful companies. The business books suffer from selection bias. You can’t copy another company’s innovation approach. You’re not them.  And your project is different and so is the context.

With innovation, the biggest waste of emotional energy is quest for (and arguments around) best practices.  Because innovation is done in domains of high ambiguity, there can be no best practices. Your project has no similarity with your previous projects or the tightest case studies in the literature. There may be good practice or emergent practice, but there can be no best practice. When there is no uncertainty and no ambiguity, a project can use best practices.  But, that’s not innovation.  If best practices are a strong tenant of your innovation program, run away.

The front end of the innovation process is all about choosing projects. If you want to be more innovative, choose to work on different projects. It’s that simple. But, make no mistake, the principle may be simple the practice is not. Though there’s no acid test for innovation, here are three rules to get you started. (And if you pass these three tests, you’re on your way.)

  • If you’ve done it before, it’s not innovation.
  • If you know how it will turn out, it’s not innovation.
  • If it doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it’s not innovation.

Once a project is selected, the next cataclysmic waste of time is the construction of a detailed project plan.  With a well-defined project, a well-defined project plan is a reasonable request.  But, for an innovation project with a high degree of ambiguity, a well-defined project plan is impossible.  If your innovation leader demands a detailed project plan, it’s usually because they are used running to well-defined continuous improvement projects.  If for your innovation projects you’re asked for a detailed project plan, run away.

With innovation projects, you can define step 1.  And step 2? It depends.  If step 1 works, modify step 2 based on the learning and try step 2.  And if step 1 doesn’t work, reformulate step 1 and try again. Repeat this process until the project is complete.  One step at a time until you’re done.

Innovation projects are unpredictable.  If your innovation projects require hard completion dates, run away.

Innovation projects are all about learning and they are best defined and managed using Learning Objectives (LOs). Instead of step 1 and step 2, think LO1 and LO2.  Though there’s little written about LOs, there’s not much to them.  Here’s the taxonomy of a LO: We want to learn if [enter what you want to learn].  Innovation projects are nothing more than a series of interconnected LOs.  LO2 may require the completion of LO1 or L1 and LO2 could be done in parallel, but that’s your call. Your project plan can be nothing more than a precedence diagram of the Learning Objectives.  There’s no need for a detailed Gantt chart. If you’re asked for a detailed Gantt chart, you guessed it – run away.

The Learning Objective defines what you learn, how you want to learn, who will do the learning and when they want to do it.  The best way to track LOs is with an Excel spreadsheet with one tab for each LO.  For each LO tab, there’s a table that defines the actions, who will do them, what they’ll measure and when they plan to get the actions done. Since the tasks are tightly defined, it’s possible to define reasonable dates.  But, since there can be a precedence to the LOs (LO2 depends on the successful completion of LO1), LO2 can be thought of a sequence of events that start when LO1 is completed.  In that way, an innovation project can be defined with a single LO spreadsheet that defines the LOs, the tasks to achieve the LOs, who will do the tasks, how success will be determined and when the work will be done. If you want to learn how to do innovation, learn how to use Learning Objectives.

There are more element of innovation to discuss, for example how to define customer segments, how to identify the most important problems, how to create creative solutions, how to estimate financial value of a project and how to go to market.  But, those are for another post.

Until then, why not choose a project that scares you, define a small set of Learning Objectives and get going?

Image credit – JD Hancock

Additive Manufacturing’s Holy Grail

The holy grail of Additive Manufacturing (AM) is high volume manufacturing.  And the reason is profit. Here’s the governing equation:

(Price – Cost) x Volume = Profit

The idea is to sell products for more than the cost to make them and sell a lot of them.  It’s an intoxicatingly simple proposition. And as long as you look only at the volume – the number of products sold per year – life is good. Just sell more and profits increase.  But for a couple reasons, it’s not that simple. First, volume is a result. Customers buy products only when those products deliver goodness at a reasonable price.  And second, volume delivers profit only when the cost is less than the price.  And there’s the rub with AM.

Here’s a rule – as volume increases, the cost of AM is increasingly higher than traditional manufacturing. This is doubly bad news for AM. Not only is AM more expensive, its profit disadvantage is particularly troubling at high volumes. Here’s another rule – if you’re looking to AM to reduce the cost of a part, look elsewhere. AM is not a bottom-feeder technology.

If you want to create profits with AM, use it to increase price. Use it to develop products that do more and sell for more.  The magic of AM is that it can create novel shapes that cannot be made with traditional technologies. And these novel shapes can create products with increased function that demand a higher price. For example, AM can create parts with internal features like serpentine cooling channels with fine-scale turbulators to remove more heat and enable smaller products or products that weigh less.  Lighter automobiles get better fuel mileage and customers will pay more. And parts that reduce automobile weight are more valuable.  And real estate under the hood is at a premium, and a smaller part creates room for other parts (more function) or frees up design space for new styling, both of which demand a higher price.

Now, back to cost.  There’s one exception to cost rule.  AM can reduce total product cost if it is used to eliminate high cost parts or consolidate multiple parts into a single AM part.  This is difficult to do, but it can be done.  But it takes some non-trivial cost analysis to make the case.  And, because the technology is relatively new, there’s some aversion to adopting AM.  An AM conversion can require a lot of testing and a significant cost reduction to take the risk and make the change.

To win with AM, think more function AND consolidation.  More (or new) function to support a higher price (and increase volume) and reduced cost to increase profit per part. Don’t do one or the other. Do both. That’s what GE did with its AM fuel nozzle in their new aircraft engines. They combined 20 parts into a single unit which weighed 25 percent less than a traditional nozzle and was more than five times as durable. And it reduced fuel consumption (more function, higher price).

AM is well-established in prototyping and becoming more established in low-volume manufacturing.  The holy grail for AM – high volume manufacturing – will become a broad reality as engineers learn how to design products to take advantage of AM’s unique ability to make previously un-makeable shapes and learn to design for radical part consolidation.

More function AND radical part consolidation.  Do both.

Image credit – Les Haines

The Power of Surprise

There’s disagreement on what is creative, innovative and disruptive. And there is no set of hard criteria to sort concepts into the three categories. Stepping back a bit, a lesser but still important sorting is an in-or-out categorization. Though not as good as discerning among the three, it is useful to decide if a new concept is in (one of the three) or out (not).

The closest thing to an acid test is assessment of the emotional response generated by a new concept. Here are some responses that I consider tell-tail signs of powerful ideas/concepts worthy of the descriptors creative, innovative, or disruptive.

When first shown, a prototype creates fear and defensiveness. The fear signals that the prototype threatens the status quo and defensiveness is objective evidence of the fear.

When first explained, a new concept creates anger and aggression. Because the concept doesn’t play by the rules, it disrespects everything holy, and the unfairness spawns indigence.

After some time, the dismissive comments about the new prototype fade and turn to discussions colored by deep sadness as the gravity of the situation hits home.

But the best leading indicator is surprise.  When a test result doesn’t match your expectations, it generates surprise. And since your expectations are built on your mental models, surprising concepts contradict your mental models. And since your mental models are formed by successful experiences, prototypes that create surprise violate previous success.

If you’re surprised by a new concept, it’s worth a deeper look. If you’re not surprised, move on.

If you’re not tolerant of surprise, you should be. And if you are tolerant of surprise, it’s time to become fervent.

Image credit – Raul Pop

How to wallow in the mud of uncertainty.

Creativity and innovation are dominated by uncertainty. And in the domain of uncertainty, not only are the solutions unknown, the problems are unknown. And yet, we still try to use the tried-and-true toolbox of certainty even after it’s abundantly clear those wrenches don’t fit.

When wallowing in the mud of uncertainty and company leaders ask, “When will you be done?”, the only real answer is a description of the next thing you’ll try to learn. “We will learn if Step 1 is possible.” And then the predicted response, “Well, when will you be done with that?”  The only valid response is, “It depends.”  Though truthful, this goes over like a lead balloon.  And the dialog continues – “Okay, then, what is Step 2?”  The unpalatable answer, “It depends. If Step 1 is successful, we’ll move onto Step 2, but if Step 1 is unsuccessful, we’ll step back and regroup.” This, too, though truthful, is unsatisfactory.

When doing creative work, there’s immense pressure to be done on time. But, that pressure is inappropriate. Yes, there can be pressure to learn quickly and effectively, but the expectation to be done within an arbitrary timeline is ludicrous.  Managers don’t know this, but when they demand a completion date for a task that has never been done before, the people doing the creative work know the manager doesn’t know what they’re doing.  They won’t tell the manager what they think, but they definitely think it. And when pushed to give a completion date, they’ll give one, knowing full well the predicted date is just as arbitrary as the manager’s desired timeline.

But learning objectives can create common ground. Starting with “We want to learn if…”, learning objectives define what the project team must learn. Though there’s no agreement on when things will be completed, everyone can agree on the learning objectives. And with clearly defined learning objectives and measurable definitions of success, the project can move forward with consensus. There is still consternation over the lack of hard deadlines for the learning objectives, but there is agreement on the sequence of events, tests protocols or analyses that will be carried out to learn what must be learned.

Two rules to live by: If you know when you’ll be done, you’re not doing innovation. And if no one is surprised by the solution, you’re not doing creative work.

Image credit – Michael Carian

Creating the Causes and Conditions for Self Growth – once a week for the last eight years.

With this blog post, I’ve written a blog post every Wednesday night for eight years, with no misses and no repeats.

It started while on vacation at a friend’s house where he suggested I write a blog. I had no idea what a blog was or how to write one. I didn’t know that a blog usually sits on a website and I didn’t know how to make a website or even how to pay someone to make one. And once I stopped hiding behind the transactional work, I realized I didn’t know what to write about or how to start.

Right out of the gate I learned that starting is difficult. I was anxious and afraid and I told myself all sorts of scary stories that didn’t come true. As I pushed through the basics of creating a website, there were plenty of opportunities to stop, but I didn’t. There was a force pushing me, and though I didn’t know where it came from I was happy when it woke up with me every morning and stayed by my side.

Before starting I had no website and then I had one.  I moved from no to yes.  Creating something from nothing feels great when you’re done, but not beforehand. But I wasn’t even done starting.

The first time I faced the blank screen I was paralyzed. I had many ideas and none of them good enough. I wrote and rewrote paragraphs and scrapped them. I wrote whole drafts and scrapped them. I didn’t have the confidence to say what I wanted to say and let people judge my work. What would they say about me? Would they think about me? Do my words make sense? Are they interesting? Are they right?

At some point I got too tired, my resistance weakened and I hit the publish button. I was still afraid, but in a moment of weakness I sent it anyway. Though I catastrophized before sending, nothing bad happened when I sent it. Nothing good happened either, and I was fine with both.

Self-judgment is a powerful blocking mechanism, but I broke through for the first time. Now, going on 416 times, I’ve started with a blank screen, pushed through my self-judgment and wrote a post.  It’s easier now, but it’s still not easy. And it won’t be easy next year. In fact, what I learned is the posts that caused the most uneasiness in me made the largest impact on others. I learned if I put my deepest personal thoughts into my writing, others appreciated it.  But more importantly, I stood three inches taller after writing it.

With my posts, every week I must to create something from nothing. Every week I must think deeply, distill and write clearly. At the end of every post, I know more about the subject I wrote about. In that way, I can be my own teacher. And every week I must push through my self-doubt and publish. And in that way, every week I create the causes and conditions for self-growth.

Everything gets better with practice. And my practice of starting with nothing and ending with something has helped me be more effective in domains of high uncertainty.  I still feel anxious, but I know it won’t hurt me. And now I use my anxiety for good – as a leading indication that I’m working in new design space. And when I don’t feel anxious, I know to stop what I’m doing and work on something else.

Image credit – Steve Jurvetson

 

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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