Archive for the ‘Seeing Things As They Are’ Category

Whatever your situation, be thankful for it.

If you’re thankful for the success you’ve had, you’re in for a letdown because your success will be short-lived. And don’t take it personally – the Universe knows regression to the mean is real and it will bring you to your knees whether you believe it or not. Like with all things, success is impermanent.

Your success has a half-life.  Sure, your success has been good. You’ve made money; your brand has prospered, and everyone is happy. But, don’t get too comfortable because it’s going away.  Your recipe will run out of gas as your competition targets your success and figures out how to do it better. But don’t blame your competitors’ hard work. Blame yourself and your success.  It’s pretty clear your success has blocked you from doing things differently.  The real problem isn’t your competitors’ success; the real problem is your success.  Your success has blocked you from trying something new. As the thinking goes – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But, if it ain’t broke now, it will be broken soon.

If you’re sad (unthankful) because of the failure you’ve experienced, you’re in for a burst of goodness because your failure will be short-lived. And don’t feel special – the Universe knows regression to the mean is real and it will bring you success if you believe you’re worthy of it. Like with all things, failure is impermanent.

Your failure has a half-life. Sure, your failure has been bad. You’ve not made money; your brand has suffered; and everyone is unhappy.  But, don’t hold onto your discomfort because it’s going away.  Because your recipe hasn’t worked, you’ll target your competitors’ success and try a new recipe.  It’s pretty clear your lack of success caused you to try a new recipe. And because you tried something new, you figured out how to do it better.  But Don’t give credit to your competitors.  Give credit to yourselves for trying something new. The real root cause isn’t your competitors’ success; the real forcing function is your lack of success.  Your lack of success has opened up your thinking and enabled you to try something new. As the thinking goes – if it didn’t work last time, do something different. And that’s just what you did.

Don’t be thankful for your success; be thankful you have smart people who want to make a difference. And don’t be unthankful for your failure; be thankful you have smart people who want to make a difference.

As a leader in a successful company, what will you do to support people who want to make a difference? As a leader, you must protect their new ideas from the army of people that want to regurgitate what was done last time. Because of your success, their new ideas will be taken out at the knees. And what will you do? Will you roll over and kowtow to un-thinkers? Or, will you take the bullets and advocate for ideas that violate your long-in-the-tooth, geriatric recipe that can no longer deliver what it used to?

And as a leader in a yet-to-be successful company, what will you do to support people who want to make a difference? As a leader, you must protect their new ideas from the army of people that have no idea what to do next. Because of your failure, their new ideas will be met with negativity and derision. And what will you do? Will you give in to the naysayers? Or, will you take the bullets and advocate for ideas that transcend your unsuccessful recipe?

Be thankful for your success, but don’t let it limit you from trying something new.  And be thankful for your failure, and use it to power your new ideas.

Whatever your situation, don’t dismiss it. Whatever your situation, learn from it.  And whatever your situation, be thankful for it.

Image credit — Irudayam

All-or-Nothing vs. One-in-a-Row

All-or-nothing thinking is exciting – we’ll launch a whole new product family all at once and take the market by storm! But it’s also dangerous – if we have one small hiccup, “all” turns into “nothing” in a heartbeat. When you take an all-or-nothing approach, it’s likely you’ll have far too little “all” and far too much “nothing”.

Instead of trying to realize the perfection of “all”, it’s far better to turn nothing into something.  Here’s the math for an all-or-nothing launch of product family launch consisting of four products, where each product will create $1 million in revenue and the probability of launching each product is 0.5 (or 50%).

1 product x $1 million x 0.5 = $500K

2 products x $1 million x 0.5 x 0.5 = $500K

3 products x $1 million x 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 = $375K

4 products x $1 million x 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 = $250K

In the all-or-nothing scheme, the launch of each product is contingent on all the others.  And if the probability of each launch is 0.5, the launch of the whole product family is like a chain of four links, where each link has a 50% chance of breaking.  When a single link of a chain breaks, there’s no chain. And it’s the same with an all-or-nothing launch – if a single product isn’t ready for launch, there are no product launches.

But the math is worse than that. Assume there’s new technology in all the products and there are five new failure modes that must be overcome.  With all-or-nothing, if a single failure mode of a single product is a problem, there are no launches.

But the math is even more deadly than that. If there are four use models (customer segments that use the product differently) and only one of those use models creates a problem with one of the twenty failure modes (five failure modes times four products) there can be no launches. In that way, if 25% of the customers have one problem with a single failure mode, there are can be no launches.  Taken to an extreme, if one customer has one problem with one product, there can be no launches.

The problem with all-or-nothing is there’s no partial credit – you either launch four products or you launch none. Instead of all-or-nothing, think “secure the launch”. What must we do to secure the launch of a single product? And once that one’s launched, the money starts to flow.  And once we launch the first one, what must we do to secure the launch the second? (More money flows.) And, once we launch the third one…. you get the picture. Don’t try to launch four at once, launch a single product four times in a row. Instead of all-or-nothing, think one-in-a-row, where revenue is achieved after each launch of a single launch.

And there’s another benefit to launching one at a time. The second launch is informed by learning from the first launch.  And the third is informed by the first two. With one-in-a-row, the team gets smarter and each launch gets better.

Where all-or-nothing is glamorous, one-in-a-row is achievable. Where all-or-nothing is exciting, one-in-row is achievable. And where all-or-nothing is highly improbable, one-in-a-row is highly profitable.

Image credit – Mel

Companies, Acquisitions, Startups, and Hurricanes

If you run a company, the most important thing you can control is how you allocate your resources. You can’t control how the people in your company will respond to input, but you can choose the projects they work on.  You can’t control which features and functions your customers will like, but you can choose which features and functions become part of the next product. And you can’t control if a new technology will work, but you can choose the design space to investigate.  The open question – How to choose in a way that increases your probability of success?

If you want to buy a company, the most important thing you can control is how you allocate your resources. In this case, the resources are your hard-earned money and your choice is which company to buy. The open question – How to choose in a way that increases your probability of success?

If you want to invest in a startup company, the most important thing you can control is how you allocate your resources. This case is the same as the previous one – your money is the resource and the company you choose defines how you allocate your resources. This one is a little different in that the uncertainty is greater, but so is the potential reward. Again, the same open question – How to choose in a way that increases your probability of success?

Taking a step back, the three scenarios can be generalized into a category called a “system.”  And the question becomes – how to understand the system in a way that improves resource allocation and increases your probability of success?

These people systems aren’t predictable in an if-A-then-B way. But they do have personalities or dispositions. They’ve got characteristics similar to hurricanes. A hurricane’s exact path cannot be forecasted, the meteorologist can use history and environmental conditions to broadly define regions where the probability of danger is higher.  The meteorologist continually monitors the current state of the hurricane (the system as it is) and tracks its position over time to get an idea of its trajectory (a system’s momentum). The key to understanding where the hurricane could go next: where it is right now (current state), how it got there (how it has behaved over time), and how have other hurricanes tracked under similar conditions (its disposition).  And it’s the same for systems.

To improve your understanding of how your system may respond, understand it as it is.  Define the elements and how those elements interact.  Then, work backward in time to understand previous generations of the system.  Which elements were improved? Which ones were added? Then, like the meteorologist, start at the system’s genesis and move forward to the present to understand its path.  Use the knowledge of its path and the knowledge of systems (it’s important to be the one that improves the immature elements of the system and systems follow S-curves until the S-curve flattens) to broadly define regions where the probability of success is higher.

These methods won’t guarantee success.  But, they will help you choose projects, choose acquisitions, choose technologies, and choose startups in a way that increases your probability of success.

Image credit — Alexander Gerst

When Problems Are Bigger Than They Seem

If words and actions are different, believe the actions.

If the words change over time, don’t put stock in the person delivering them.

If a good friend doesn’t trust someone, neither should you.

If the people above you don’t hold themselves accountable, yet they try to hold you accountable, shame on them.

If people are afraid to report injustices, it’s just a matter of time before the best people leave.

If actions are consistently different than the published values, it’s likely the values should be up-revved.

If you don’t trust your leader, respect your instincts.

If people are bored and their boredom is ignored, expect the company to death spiral into the ground.

If behaviors are different than the culture, the culture isn’t the culture.

If all the people in a group apply for positions outside the group, the group has a problem.

When actions seen by your eyes are different than the rhetoric force-fed into your ears, believe your eyes.

If you think your emotional wellbeing is in jeopardy, it is.

If to preserve your mental health you must hunker down with a trusted friend, find a new place to work.

If people are afraid to report injustices, company leadership has failed.

If the real problems aren’t discussed because they’re too icky, there’s a bigger problem.

If everyone in the group applies for positions outside the group and HR doesn’t intervene, the group isn’t the problem.

And to counter all this nonsense:

If someone needs help, help them.

If someone helps you, thank them.

If someone does a good job, tell them.

Rinse, and repeat.

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

How To Know if You’re Moving in a New Direction

If you want to move in a new direction, you can call it disruption, innovation, or transformation. Or, if you need to rally around an initiative, call it Industrial Internet of Things or Digital Strategy. The naming can help the company rally around a new common goal, so take some time to argue about and get it right.  But, settle on a name as quickly as you can so you can get down to business. Because the name isn’t the important part.  What’s most important is that you have an objective measure that can help you see that you’ve stopped talking about changing course and started changing it.

When it’s time to change course, I have found that companies error on the side of arguing what to call it and how to go about it.  Sure, this comes at the expense of doing it, but that’s the point.  At the surface, it seems like there’s a need for the focus groups and investigatory dialog because no one knows what to do.  But it’s not that the company doesn’t know what it must do. It’s that no one is willing to make the difficult decision and own the consequences of making it.

Once the decision is made to change course and the new direction is properly named, the talk may have stopped but the new work hasn’t started. And this is when it’s time to create an objective measure to help the company discern between talking about the course change and actively changing the course.

Here it is in a nutshell. There can be no course change unless the projects change.

Here’s the failure mode to guard against. When the naming conventions in the operating plans reflect the new course heading but sitting under the flashy new moniker is the same set of tired, old projects.  The job of the objective measure is to discern between the same old projects and new projects that are truly aligned with the new direction.

And here’s the other half of the nutshell. There can be no course change unless the projects solve different problems.

To discern if the company is working in a new direction, the objective measure is a one-page description of the new customer problem each project will solve.  The one-page limit helps the team distill their work into a singular customer problem and brings clarity to all. And framing the problem in the customer’s context helps the team know the project will bring new value to the customer. Once the problem is distilled, everyone will know if the project will solve the same old problem or a new one that’s aligned with the company’s new course heading.  This is especially helpful the company leaders who are on the hook to move the company in the new direction.  And ask the team to name the customer.  That way everyone will know if you are targeting the same old customer or new ones.

When you have a one-page description of the problem to be solved for each project in your portfolio, it will be clear if your company is working in a new direction. There’s simply no escape from this objective measure.

Of course, the next problem is to discern if the resources have actually moved off the old projects and are actively working on the new projects. Because if the resources don’t move to the new projects, you’re not solving new problems and you’re not moving in the new direction.

Image credit – Walt Stoneburner

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

People, Money and Time

If you want the next job, figure out why.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting the job you have.
When you don’t care about the next job it’s because you fit the one you have.

A larger salary is good, but time with family is better.
Less time with family is a downward spiral into sadness.
When you decide you have enough, you don’t need things to be different.

A sense of belonging lasts longer than a big bonus.
A cohesive team is an oasis.
Who you work with makes all the difference.

More stress leads to less sleep and that leads to more stress.
If you’re not sleeping well, something’s wrong.
How much sleep do you get? How do you feel about that?

Leaders lead people.
Helping others grow IS leadership.
Every business is in the people business.

To create trust, treat people like they matter. It’s that simple.
When you do something for someone even though it comes at your own expense, they remember.
You know you’ve earned trust when your authority trumps the org chart.

Image credit — Jimmy Baikovicius

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.

The Difficulty of Commercializing New Concepts

If you have the data that says the market for the new concept is big enough, you waited too long.

If you require the data that verifies the market is big enough before pursuing new concepts, you’ll never pursue them.

If you’re afraid to trust the judgement of your best technologists, you’ll never build the traction needed to launch new concepts.

If you will sell the new concept to the same old customers, don’t bother. You already sold them all the important new concepts. The returns have already diminished.

If you must sell the new concept to new customers, it could create a whole new business for you.

If you ask your successful business units to create and commercialize new concepts, they’ll launch what they did last time and declare it a new concept.

If you leave it to your successful business units to decide if it’s right to commercialize a new concept created by someone else, they won’t.

If a new concept is so significant that it will dwarf the most successful business unit, the most successful business unit will scuttle it.

If the new concept is so significant it warrants a whole new business unit, you won’t make the investment because the sales of the yet-to-be-launched concept are yet to be realized.

If you can’t justify the investment to commercialize a new concept because there are no sales of the yet-to-be-launched concept, you don’t understand that sales come only after you launch. But, you’re not alone.

If a new concept makes perfect sense, you would have commercialized it years ago.

If the new concept isn’t ridiculed by the Status Quo, do something else.

If the new concept hasn’t failed three times, it’s not a worthwhile concept.

If you think the new concept will be used as you intend, think again.

If you’re sure a new concept will be a flop, you shouldn’t be. Same goes for the ones you’re sure will be successful.

If you’re afraid to trust your judgement, you aren’t the right person to commercialize new concepts.

And if you’re not willing to put your reputation on the line, let someone else commercialize the new concept.

Image credit – Melissa O’Donohue

As a leader, be truthful and forthcoming.

144 Truthful, at Ping Sien Si, Pasir Panjang, Perak, Malaysia

Have you ever felt like you weren’t getting the truth from your leader? You know – when they say something and you know that’s not what they really think. Or, when they share their truth but you can sense that they’re sharing only part of the truth and withholding the real nugget of the truth? We really have no control over the level of forthcoming of our leaders, but we do have control over how we respond to their incomplete disclosure.

There are times when leaders cannot, by law, disclose things. But, even then, they can make things clear without disclosing what legally cannot be disclosed. For example, they can say: “That’s a good question and it gets to the heart of the situation. But, by law, I cannot answer that question.” They did not answer the question, but they did. They let you know that you understand the situation; they let you know that there is an answer; and the let you know why they cannot share it with you.  As the recipient of that non-answer answer, I respect that leader.

There are also times when a leader withholds information or gives a strategically partial response for inappropriate reasons. When a leader withholds information to manipulate or control, that’s inappropriate. It’s also bad leadership. When a leader withholds information from their smartest team members, they lose trust.  And when leaders lose trust, the best people are crestfallen and withhold their best work. The thinking goes like this. If my leader doesn’t trust me enough to share the complete set of information with me it’s because they don’t think I’m worthy of their trust and they don’t think highly of me.  And if they don’t think I’m worthy of their trust, they don’t understand who I am and what I stand for.  And if they don’t understand me and know what I stand for, they’re not worthy of my best work.

As a leader, you must share all you can.  And when you can’t, you must tell your team there are things you can’t share and tell them the reasons why. Your team can handle the fact that there are some things you cannot share. But what your team cannot hand is when you withhold information so you can gain the upper hand on them. And your team can tell when you’re withholding with your best interest in mind. Remember, you hired them because they were smart, and their smartness doesn’t go away just because you want to control them.

If your direct reports always tell you they can get it done even when they don’t have the capacity and capability, that’s not the behavior you want. If your direct reports tell you they can’t get it done when they can’t get it done, that’s the behavior you want. But, as a leader, which behavior do you reward? Do you thank the truthful leader for being truthful about the reality of insufficient resources and do you chastise the other leader for telling you what you want to hear? Or, do you tell the truthful leader they’re not a team player because team players get it done and praise the unjustified can-do attitude of the “yes man” leader? As a leader, I suggest you think deeply about this. As a direct report of a leader, I can tell you I’ve been punished for responding in way that was in line with the reality of the resources available to do the work. And I can also tell you that I lost all respect for that leader.

As a leader, you have three types of direct reports. Type I are folks are happy where they are and will do as little as possible to keep it that way. Type II are people that are striving for the next promotion and will tell you whatever you want to hear in order to get the next job. Type III are the non-striving people who will tell you what you need to hear despite the implications to their career. Type I people are good to have on your team.  They know what they can do and will tell you when the work is beyond their capability. Type II people are dangerous because they think only of themselves. They will hang you out to dry if they think it will advance their career. And Type III people are priceless.

Type III people care enough to protect you.  When you ask them for something that can’t be done, they care enough about you to tell you the truth. It’s not that they don’t want to get it done, they know they cannot. And they’re willing to tell you to your face. Type II people don’t care about you as a leader; they only care about themselves. They say yes when they know the answer is no. And they do it in a way that absolves them of responsibility when the wheels fall off. As a leader, which type do you want on your team? And as a leader, which type do you promote and which do you chastise. And, how do you feel about that?

As a leader, you must be truthful. And when you can’t disclose the full truth, tell people. And when your Type II direct reports give you the answer they know you want to hear, call them on their bullshit.  And when your Type III folks give you the answer they know you don’t want to hear, thank them.

Image credit — Anandajoti Bhikkhu

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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