Archive for the ‘Risk’ Category

The Three Rs of Innovation – Risk, Reward, and Resources

Is it innovation or continuous improvement or is it innovation? Is it regular innovation or disruptive innovation? Is it new enough or too new? These questions are worse than meaningless as they suck emotional energy from the organization and divert emotional energy from the business objective.

With every initiative, there are risks, rewards, and resources. Risk generally tracks with newness, reward usually tracks with incremental customer goodness and resources are governed by the work.  Risk is about the probability of tackling the newness, reward is about the size of the prize and resources are about how the work is done. There is no best amount of risk as sometimes the right amount is none and other times it’s more than everyone prefers. And there’s no best amount of reward as it depends on the company’s goals. And there’s no right amount of resources because there’s no right scope.  For all three – risk, reward and resources – the right amount depends on the context.

For bottom line projects, it’s about maintaining product functionality while eliminating waste.  And while there’s no right amount of risk, reward and resources, three filters (people, process, tools) can help get everyone on the same page.

Here are the escalating categories for people – no new people, move people from group A to group B, hire more people like the ones we have, hire new people with skills we don’t have.  And for categories for process – no new processes, eliminate steps of existing processes, add steps to existing processes, create a process that’s new to the facility, create a process that’s new to the company, create process that’s new to the industry, create a process that’s new to the world.  And for tools – no new tools, modify existing tools, buy new tools, create new tools from scratch.

There are no right answers, but if you’ve got to hire people you’ve never hired, create processes that are new-to-world, and invent new tools, it’s clear to everyone the project is pushing the envelope. And if the reward is significant and resources are plentiful, it could be a good way to go.  And if there are no new hires, no new processes, and no new tools, don’t expect extravagant rewards. It’s not an exact science, but categorizing the newness in people, process, and tools and then comparing with the reward (payoff) makes clear any mismatches.  And when mismatches are clear they can be managed. Resources can be added, the scope can be reduced and reward can be revisited.

For top line projects, it’s about providing novel usefulness to customers at a reasonable cost.  And while risk, reward, and resources must be balanced, the filters are different.  For top line, the filters are breadth of applicability, competition, is/isn’t.

Here are the escalating categories for breadth of applicability – same customer in the same application, same customers in a new application, new customers in a new market, new customers in different industry, new customers in an industry created by the project. For competition – many competitors in the same industry, fewer competitors in the same industry, fewer competitors in a different industry, no competitors (compete with no one.) And for is/isn’t – improve what is, radically improve what is, create what isn’t.

Again, no right answers. But the plan is to sell to the same customers into markets with the same powerful competitors with only a slight improvement to the existing product, don’t expect radical rewards and don’t run a project that consumes significant resources. And, if the plan is to create a whole new industry where there are no competitors and it requires an entirely new service that doesn’t yet exist, the potential reward should be spectacular, expect to allocate a boatload of resources and prepare for the project to take longer than expected or to be cancelled before completion.

Balancing risk, reward and resources is not an exact science.  And the only way to get good at it is to calibrate new projects based on previous projects.  To start the calibration process, try the process on your most recent completed projects.  Categorize the projects with the relevant filters and define the resources consumed and the realized rewards.  And when planning the next project, categorize with the filters and define the resource plan and planned rewards and see how they compare with the completed projects.  And if there are mismatches, reconcile them with the realities of the previous projects.

Image credit – Ian Sane

Companies don’t innovate, people do.

Big companies hold tightly to what they have until they feel threatened by upstarts, and not before. They mobilize only when they see their sales figures dip below the threshold of tolerability, and no sooner. And if they’re the market leaders, they delay their mobilization through rationalization.  The dip is due to general economic slowdown that is out of our control, the dip is due to temporary unrest from the power structure change in government, or the dip is due to some ethereal force we don’t yet fully understand. The strength of big companies is what they have, and they do what it takes only when what they have is threatened.  But once they’re threatened, watch out. But, the truth is, big companies don’t make change, people within big companies make change.

Start-ups want to change everything. They reject what they don’t have and threaten the status-quo at every turn.  And they’re always mobilized to grow sales.  Every new opportunity brings an opportunity to change the game. In a ready-fire-aim way, every phone call with a potential customer is an opportunity to dilute and defocus. Each new opportunity is an opportunity to create a mega business and each new customer segment is an opportunity to pivot. The strength of start-ups is what they don’t have. No loyalty to an existing business model, no shared history with other companies, and no NIH (not invented here). But, once they focus and decide to converge on an important market segment, watch out.  But, truth is, start-ups don’t make change, people within start-ups make change.

When you work in a big company, if your idea is any good the established business units will try to stomp it into oblivion because it threatens their status quo.  In that way, if your idea is dismissed out of hand or stomped on aggressively, you are likely onto something worth pursuing. If you’re told by the experts “It will never work.” that’s a sign from the gods that your idea has strong merit and deserves to be worked. And this is where it comes down to people. The person with the idea can either pack it in or push through the intellectual inertia of company success.  To be clear – it’s their choice. If they pack it in, the idea never sees the light of day. But if they decide, despite the fact they’re not given the tools, time, or training, to build a prototype and show it to company leadership, your company has a chance to reinvent itself. What causes and conditions have you put in place for your passionate innovators to choose to do the hard work of making a prototype?

When you work at a start-up the objective is to dismantle the status quo, and all ideas are good ideas. In that way, your idea will be praised and you’ll be urged to work on it. If you’re told by the experts “That could work.” it does not mean you should work on it. Since resources are precious, focus is mandatory. The person with the idea can either try to convert their idea into a prototype or respect the direction set by company leadership. To be clear – it’s their choice. If they work on their new idea they dilute the company’s best chance to grow. But if they decide, despite their excitement around their idea, to align with the direction set by the company, your startup has a chance to deliver on its aggressive promises. What causes and conditions have you put in place for your passionate innovators to choose to do the hard work of aligning with the agreed upon approach and direction?

When no one’s looking, do you want your people to try new ideas or focus on the ones you already have? When given a choice, do you want them to focus on existing priorities or blow them out of the water? And if you want to improve their ability to choose, what can you put in place to help them choose wisely?

To be clear, a formal set of decision criteria and a standardized decision-making process won’t cut it here. But that’s not to say decisions should be unregulated and unguided. The only thing that’s flexible and powerful enough to put things right is the good judgment of the middle managers who do the work.  “Middle managers” is not the best words to describe who I’m talking about. I’m talking about the people you call when the wheels fall off and you need them put back on in a hurry. You know who I’m talking about.  In start-ups or big companies, these people have a deep understanding of what the company is trying to achieve, they know how to do the work and know when to say “give it a try” and when to say “not now.” When people with ideas come to them for advice, it’s their calibrated judgement that makes the difference.

Calibrated judgement of respected leaders is not usually called out as a make-or-break element of innovation, growth and corporate longevity, but is just that.  But good judgement around new ideas are the key to all three.  And it comes down to a choice – do those ideas die in the trenches or are they kindly nurtured until they can stand on their own?

No getting around it, it’s a judgment call whether an idea is politely put on hold or accelerated aggressively. And no getting around it, those decisions make all the difference.

Image credit Mark Strozier

How To Reduce Innovation Risk

The trouble with innovation is it’s risky.  Sure, the upside is nice (increased sales), but the downside (it doesn’t work) is distasteful. Everyone is looking for the magic pill to change the risk-reward ratio of innovation, but there is no pill.  Though there are some things you can do to tip the scale in your favor.

All problems are business problems.  Problem solving is the key to innovation, and all problems are business problems.  And as companies embrace the triple bottom line philosophy, where they strive to make progress in three areas – environmental, social and financial, there’s a clear framework to define business problems.

Start with a business objective.  It’s best to define a business problem in terms of a shortcoming in business results. And the holy grail of business objectives is the growth objective.  No one wants to be the obstacle, but, more importantly, everyone is happy to align their career with closing the gap in the growth objective.  In that way, if solving a problem is directly linked to achieving the growth objective, it will get solved.

Sell more.  The best way to achieve the growth objective is to sell more. Bottom line savings won’t get you there.  You need the sizzle of the top line. When solving a problem is linked to selling more, it will get solved.

Customers are the only people that buy things.  If you want to sell more, you’ve got to sell it to customers. And customers buy novel usefulness.  When solving a problem creates novel usefulness that customers like, the problem will get solved.  However, before trying to solve the problem, verify customers will buy what you’re selling.

No-To-Yes.  Small increases in efficiency and productivity don’t cause customers to radically change their buying habits.  For that your new product or service must do something new. In a No-To-Yes way, the old one couldn’t but the new one can. If solving the problem turns no to yes, it will get solved.

Would they buy it? Before solving, make sure customers will buy the useful novelty. (To know, clearly define the novelty in a hand sketch and ask them what they think.) If they say yes, see the next question.

Would it meet our growth objectives? Before solving, do the math. Does the solution result in incremental sales larger than the growth objective? If yes, see the next question.

Would we commercialize it? Before solving, map out the commercialization work. If there are no resources to commercialize, stop.  If the resources to commercialize would be freed up, solve it.

Defining is solving. Up until now, solving has been premature. And it’s still not time. Create a functional model of the existing product or service using blocks (nouns) and arrows (verbs). Then, to create the problem(s), add/modify/delete functions to enable the novel usefulness customers will buy.  There will be at least one problem – the system cannot perform the new function. Now it’s time to take a deep dive into the physics and bring the new function to life.  There will likely be other problems.  Existing functions may be blocked by the changes needed for the new function. Harmful actions may develop or some functions will be satisfied in an insufficient way.  The key is to understand the physics in the most complete way.  And solve one problem at a time.

Adaptation before creation. Most problems have been solved in another industry. Instead of reinventing the wheel, use TRIZ to find the solutions in other industries and adapt them to your product or service.  This is a powerful lever to reduce innovation risk.

There’s nothing worse than solving the wrong problem.  And you know it’s the wrong problem if the solution doesn’t: solve a business problem, achieve the growth objective, create more sales, provide No-To-Yes functionality customers will buy, and you won’t allocate the resources to commercialize.

And if the problem successfully runs the gauntlet and is worth solving, spend time to define it rigorously.  To understand the bedrock physics, create a functional of the system, add the new functionality and see what breaks.  Then use TRIZ to create a generic solution, search for the solution across other industries and adapt it.

The key to innovation is problem solving. But to reduce the risk, before solving, spend time and energy to make sure it’s the right problem to solve.

It’s far faster to solve the right problem slowly than to solve the wrong one quickly.

Image credit – Kate Ter Haar

Put Yourself Out There

If you put yourself out there and it doesn’t go as you expect, don’t get down.  All you are responsible for is your effort and your intentions.  You’re not responsible for the outcome. Intentions don’t drive outcomes. In fact, be prepared for your work to bring out the opposite of your intentions.

If you put yourself out there and it goes poorly, don’t judge yourself negatively. Sometimes, things go that way. It’s not a problem, unless you make it one. So, don’t make it one. Just put yourself out there.

The clothes don’t get clean without an agitator. Hold onto that, and put yourself out there.

How do you know you’ve put yourself out there? The status quo is angry with you. The people in power want you to stop. The organization tries to scuttle your work. And the people that know the truth take you out to lunch.

If you put yourself out there and your message is met with 100% agreement, you didn’t put yourself out there. You may have stepped outside the lines, but you didn’t put your whole self on the line. You didn’t splash everyone with a full belly flop. There wasn’t enough sting and your belly isn’t red enough.

You won’t get it right, but put yourself out there anyway. You can’t predict the outcome, but take a run at the status quo. You don’t know how it will turn out, but that’s not a reason to hold back, it’s objective evidence it’s time to take a run at it.

Don’t put yourself out there because it’s the right thing to do, put yourself out there because you have an emotional connection.  Put yourself out there because it’s time to put yourself out there. Put yourself out there because you don’t know what else to do.

Be prepared to be misunderstood, but put yourself out there. Expect to be laughed at and talked about behind your back, but put yourself out there. And expect there will be one or two people who will have your back.  You know who they are.

No sense holding back. Get over the fear and put yourself out there.

The only one holding you back is you.

Image credit – Mark Bonica

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

Transcending Our Financial Accounting Systems

In business and in life, one of the biggest choices is what to do next.  Sounds simple, but it’s not.

The decision has many facets and drives many questions, for example:  Does it fit with core competence? Does it fit with the brand? How many will we sell? What will the market look like after it’s launched? Do we have what it takes to pull it off?

These questions then explode into a series of complex financial analyses like – return on investment, return on capital, return on net assets (and all its flavors) and all sorts of yet-to-be created return on this’s and that’s.  This return business is all about the golden ratio – how much will we make relative to how much it costs.  All the calculations, regardless of their name, are variations on this theme. And all suffer the same fundamental flaw – they are based on an artificial system of financial accounting.

To me, especially when working in new territory, we must transcend the self-made biases and limitations of GAAP and ask the bedrock question – Is it worth it?

In the house of cards of our financial accounting, worth equals dollars. Nothing more, nothing less.  And this simplistic, formulaic characterization has devastating consequence.  Worth is broader than profit, it’s nuanced, it’s philosophical, it’s about people, it’s about planet. Yet we let our accounting systems lead us around by the nose as if people don’t matter, like the planet doesn’t matter, like what we stand for doesn’t matter. Simply put, worth is not dollars.

The single-most troubling artifact of our accounting systems is its unnatural bias toward immediacy.  How much will we make next year? How about next quarter? What will we spend next month? If we push out the expense by a month how much will we save? What will it do to this quarter’s stock price? It’s like the work has no validity unless the return on investment isn’t measured in days, weeks or months. It seems the only work that makes it through the financial analysis gauntlet is work that costs nothing and returns almost nothing. Under the thumb of financial accounting, projects are small in scope, smaller in resource demands and predictable in time.  This is a recipe for minimalist improvement and incrementalism.

What about the people doing the work? Why aren’t we concerned they can’t pay their mortgages? Why do we think it’s okay to demand they work weekends? Why don’t we hold their insurance co-pays at reasonable levels? Why do we think it’s okay to slash our investment in their development? What about their self-worth? Just because we can’t measure it in a financial sense, don’t we think it’s a liability to foster disenchantment and disengagement? If we considered our people an asset in a financial accounting sense, wouldn’t we invest in them to protect their output? Why do we preventive maintenance on our machines but not our people?

When doing innovative work, our financial accounting systems fail us. These systems were designed in an era when it was best to increase the maturity of immature systems.  But now that our systems are mature, and our objective is to obsolete them, our ancient financial accounting systems hinder more than help. The domains of reinvention and disruption are dominated by judgement, not rigid accounting rules.  Innovation is the domain of incomplete data and uncertain outcomes and not the domain of debits and credits.

Profit is important, but profit is a result.  Financial accounting doesn’t create profit, people create profit. And the currency of people are thoughts, feelings and judgement.

With innovation, it’s better to create the conditions so people believe in the project and are fully engaged in their work. With creativity, it’s better to have empowered people who will move mountains to do what must be done. With work that’s new, it’s better to trust people and empower them to use their best judgement.

Image credit – Jeremy Tarling

Sometimes things need to get worse before they can get better.

the-simpsons-sea-captainAll the scary words are grounded in change.  Innovation, by definition, is about change.  When something is innovative it’s novel, useful and successful.  Novel is another word for different and different means change.  That’s why innovation is scary.  And that’s why radical innovation is scarier.

Continuous improvement, where everything old is buffed and polished into something new, is about change.  When people have followed the same process for fifteen years and then it’s improved, people get scared.  In their minds improved isn’t improved, improved is different.  And different means change.  Continuous improvement is especially scary because it makes processes more productive and frees up people to do other things, unless, of course, there are no other things to do.  And when that happens their jobs go away.  Every continuous improvement expert knows when the first person loses their job due to process improvement the program is dead in the saddle, yet it happens.  And that’s scary on a number of fronts.

And then there’s disruption. While there’s disagreement on what it actually is, there is vicious agreement that after a disruption the campus will be unrecognizable. And unrecognizable things are unrecognizable because they are different from previous experience. And different means change.  With mortal innovation there are some limits, but with disruption everything is fair game. With disruption everything can change, including the venerable, yet decrepit, business model.  With self-disruption, the very thing responsible for success is made to go away by the people that that built it.  And that’s scary. And when a company is disrupted from the outside it can die. And, thankfully, that’s scary.

But change isn’t scary.  Thinking about change is scary.

There’s one condition where change is guaranteed – when the pain of the current situation is stronger than the fear of changing it.  One source of pain could be from a realization the ship will run aground if a new course isn’t taken.  When pain of the immanent shipwreck (caused by fear) overpowers the fear of uncharted waters, the captain readily pulls hard to starboard. And when the crew realizes it’s sink or swim, they swim.

Change doesn’t happen before it’s time. And before things get bad enough, it’s not time.

When the cruise ship is chugging along in fair seas, change won’t happen. Right before the fuel runs out and the generators quit, it’s all you can eat and margaritas for everyone.  And right after, when the air conditioning kicks out and the ice cream melts, it’s bedlam.  But bedlam is not the best way to go.  No sense waiting until the fuel’s gone to make change. Maybe someone should keep an eye the fuel gauge and let the captain know when there’s only a quarter tank.  That way there’s some time to point the ship toward the closest port.

There’s no reason to wait for a mutiny to turn the ship, but sometimes an almost mutiny is just the thing.

As a captain, it’s difficult to let things get worse so they can get better. But if there’s insufficient emotional energy to power change, things must get worse.  The best captains run close to the reef and scrape the hull.  The buffet tables shimmy, the smoked salmon fouls the deck and the liquor bottles rattle.  And when done well, there’s a deep groan from the bowels of the ship that makes it clear this is no drill.  And if there’s a loud call for all hands on deck and a cry for bilge pumps at the ready, all the better.

To pull hard in a new direction, sometimes the crew needs help to see things as they are, not as they were.

Image credit – Francis Bijl

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

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.

Business Models Are Finite

crooked-houseLike it or not, everything changes. The rock solid brand will erode and the venerable business model will wither and die. Though you will add immense energy to hold on to what you built, natural forces of competitive evolution will come up with something makes your best work extinct.

We see it in our everyday lives. Houses need new roofs, cars needs new tires and our kids grow out of their best clothes. Sure we do everything we can to make things last, but we know that ultimately the roof will collapse and the tires will blow out. It doesn’t matter if we don’t want it to happen. It will happen without our consent. And we can see it coming. The roof loses some shingles, some tar paper shows through in spots and we know the leaks will follow. The leaks are not wanted, but they’re not a surprise. And it’s the same with tires. They start to rumble at highway speed, they get you stuck in snow that wasn’t a problem last year and the hydroplaning is inevitable. It’s not if it’s when. You rotate them, you keep them inflated and you know they will give it up. If you’re surprised it’s because you didn’t pay attention.

But in business we deny our business models have a natural life span and we deny what worked last year will not always work next year. And like with tires the signs of wear are obvious, but we dismiss the bumpy ride and the loss of traction in the market. And when the tar paper is clearly showing through the business model and someone points it out they are ignored or even ostracized for calling attention to the deep problem. And that’s the thing – it’s too deep to acknowledge, too deep to talk about. It’s too uncertain and therefore too frightening. The fear of a dwindling reality is stronger than the fear of doing something new so we put plywood over the windows and try to ride out the storm that will only get stronger.

Plywood is good when the radar says the hurricane will last for three hours. But plywood isn’t going to cut it when the fifth hurricane in a month picks up the house and blows it into the next county. The decision to evacuate the business model and abandon what worked is a tough one. It’s emotionally charged. There are pictures on the wall of four generation of CEOs and there are memories of successful production launches and an unnamable feeling of comfort in everything, including the bad cafeteria food you grew up on.

To ignore the natural forces of change is unskillful. It’s not good for the stock price but more importantly it’s not good for your personal wellbeing. It’s emotionally draining to bury the truth from yourself and it’s an immense waste of resources to continually prop up something that should be evacuated.

It’s not safer to bury your head in the sand. Call attention to the leaky roof and point out that people aren’t supposed to need to add air to leaky tires every other day. And when they dismiss you, don’t accept it. No one can dismiss you without your consent. Don’t give it to them.

Image credit – Don McCullough

Don’t mentor. Develop young talent.

youre not supposed to look like youre lostYour young talent deserves your attention.  But it’s not for the sake of the young talent, it’s for the survival of your company.

Your young talent understands technology far better than your senior leaders.  And they don’t just know how it works, they know why people use it.  And it’s not just social media.  They know how to code, they know how to prototype (I think the call it hacking, or something like that.) and they know how things fit together.  And they know what’s next.  But they don’t know how to get things done within your organization.

Mentoring isn’t the right word.  It’s a tired word without meaning, and we’ve demonstrated we care about it only from a compliance standpoint and not a content standpoint.  The mentorship checklist – set up regular meetings, meet infrequently without an agenda, lie it die a slow death and then declare compliance.  Nurturing is a better word, but it has connotations of taking care.  Parenting captures the essence of the work, but it doesn’t fit with the language of companies.  But that may not be so bad, because the work doesn’t fit with the operations companies.

In the short term it’s inefficient to spend precious leadership bandwidth on young talent, but in the long run, it’s the only way to go.  Just as the yardwork goes more slowly when your kids help, the next time it’s a bit faster.  But the real benefit, the unquantifiable benefit, is the pure joy of spending time with irreverent, energetic, idealistic young people. Yes, there’s less productivity (fewer leaves raked per hour), but that’s not what it’s about.   There’s growth, increased capability and shared experience that will set up the next lesson.

The biggest mistake is to come up with special “mentorship projects”.  Adding work for the sake of growing talent is wrong on so many levels.  Instead, help them with the work they’re expected to do.  Dig in.  Help them. Contribute to their projects.  Go to their meetings.  Provide technical guidance.  Look ahead for potential problems and tell them they are looming over the horizon.  Let them make the decisions.  Let them choose the path, but run ahead and make sure they negotiate the corner.  If they’re going to make it, let them scoot through without them seeing you.  If they’re going to crash, grab the wheel and negotiate the corner with them.  Then, when things have calmed down, tell them why you stepped in.

Your children watch you.  They watch how you interact with your spouse; they watch how you handle stressful situations; they watch how you treat other children; they listen to what you say to them; they listen to how you say it.  And when the words disagree with the unsaid sentiment, they believe the sentiment.    Your children know you by your actions.  You are transparent to them.  They know everything about you.  They know why you do things and they know what you stand for.  And young talent is no different.

There is nothing more invigorating than a bright, young person willing to dig in and make a difference.  Their passion is priceless.  And as much as you are helping them, they are helping you.  They spark new thinking; they help you see the implicit assumptions you’ve left untested for too long and then naively stomp on them and give you a save-face way to revisit your old thinking.  When the toddler learns to walk, even the grandparents spring to life and spryly support them step-by-step.

Don’t call it parenting, but behave like one.  Take the time to form the close relationships that transcend the generational divide.  Make it personal, because it is.  And when you have too much to do and too little time to invest in young talent, do it anyway.  Do it for them or do it for the company, but do it.

But in the end, do it for the right reason, the selfish reason – because it the best thing for you.

Image credit – mliu92

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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