Archive for the ‘Seeing Things As They Are’ Category

On Gumption

Doing new work takes gumption. But there are two problems with gumption. One, you’ve got to create it from within. Two, it takes a lot of energy to generate the gumption and to do that you’ve got to be physically fit and mentally grounded. Here are some words that may help.

Move from self-judging to self-loving. It makes a difference.

It’s never enough until you decide it’s enough. And when you do, you can be more beholden to yourself.

You already have what you’re looking for. Look inside.

Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish, it’s self-ful.

When in doubt, go outside.

You can’t believe in yourself without your consent.

Your well-being is your responsibility. And it’s time to be responsible.

When you move your body, your mind smiles.

With selfish, you take care of yourself at another’s expense. With self-ful, you take care of yourself because you’re full of self-love.

When in doubt, feel the doubt and do it anyway.

If you’re not taking care of yourself, understand what you’re putting in the way and then don’t do that anymore.

You can’t help others if you don’t take care of yourself.

If you struggle with taking care of yourself, pretend you’re someone else and do it for them.

Image credit — Ramón Portellano

Organizational Learning

The people within companies have development plans so they can learn new things and become more effective.  There are two types of development plans – one that builds on strengths and another that shore up shortcomings. And for both types, the most important step is to acknowledge it’s important to improve. Before a plan can be created to improve on a strength, there must be recognition that something good can come from the improvement. And before there can be a plan to improve on a shortcoming, there must be recognition that there’s something missing and it needs to be improved.

And thanks to Human Resources, the whole process is ritualized. The sequence is defined, the timing is defined and the tools are defined. Everyone knows when it will happen, how it will happen and, most importantly, that it will happen.  In that way, everyone knows it’s important to learn new skills for the betterment of all.

Organizational learning is altogether different and more difficult.  With personal learning, it’s clear who must do the learning (the person). But with organizational learning, it’s unclear who must learn because the organization, as a whole, must learn. But we can’t really see the need for organizational learning because we get trapped in trying to fix the symptoms. Team A has a problem, so let’s fix Team A. Or, Team B has a problem, so let’s fix Team B. But those are symptoms. Real organizational learning comes when we recognize problematic themes shared by all the teams. Real organization learning comes when we realize these problems don’t result from doing things wrong, rather, they are a natural byproduct of how the company goes about its work.

The difficulty with organizational learning is not fixing the thematic problems. The difficulty is recognizing the thematic problems. When all the processes are followed and all the best practices are used, yet the same problematic symptoms arise, the problem is inherent in the foundational processes and practices. Yet, these are the processes and practices responsible for past success. It’s difficult for company leaders recognize and declare that the things that made the company successful are now the things that are holding the company back. But that’s the organizational learning that must happen.

What worked last time will work next time, as long as the competitive landscape remains constant. But when the landscape changes, what worked last time doesn’t work anymore. And this, I think, is how recipes responsible for past success can, over time, begin to show cracks and create these systematic problems that are so difficult to see.

The best way I know to recognize the need for organizational learning is to recognize changes in the competitive landscape. Once these changes are recognized, thought experiments can be run to evaluate potential impacts on how the company does business. Now that the landscape changed like this, it could stress our business model like that. Now that our competitors provide new services like this, it could create a gap in our capabilities like that.

Organizational learning occurs when the right leaders feel the problems. Fight the urge to fix the problems. Instead, create the causes and conditions for the right leaders to recognize they have a real problem on their hands.

Image credit – Jim Bauer

Why not choose the right words?

We all want to make progress. We all want to to do the right thing. And we all have the best intentions. But often we don’t pay enough attention to the words we use.

There are pure words that convey a message in a kind soothing way and there are snarl words that convey a message in a sharp, biting way. It’s relatively easy, if you’re paying attention, to recognize the snarl and purr. But it’s much more difficult to take skillful action when you hear them used unskillfully.

A purr word is skillful when it conveys honest appreciation, and it’s unskillful when it manipulates under the banner of false praise. But how do you tell the difference? That’s where the listening comes in. And that’s where effective probing can help.

If you sense unskillful use, ask a question of the user to get at the intent behind the language. Why do you think the idea is so good? What about the concept do you find so interesting? Why do you like it so much? Then, use your judgment to decide if the use was unskillful or not. If unskillful, assign less value to the purr language and the one purring it.

But it’s different with snark words. I don’t know of a situation where the use of snarl words is skillful. Blatant use of snarl words is easy to see and interpret. And it looks like plain, old-fashioned anger. And the response is straightforward. Call the snarler on their snarl and let them know it’s not okay. That usually puts an end to future snarling.

The most dangerous use of snarl words is passive-aggressive snarling. Here, the snarler wants all the manipulative benefit without being recognized as a manipulator.  The pros snarl lightly to start to see if they get away with it. And if they do, they snarl harder and more often. And they won’t stop until they’re called on their behavior. And when they are called on their behavior, they’ll deny the snarling altogether.

Passive-aggressive snarling can block new thinking, prevent consensus and stall hard-won momentum. It’s nothing short of divisive. And it’s difficult to see and requires courage to confront and eviscerate.

If you see something, say something. And it’s the same with passive-aggressive snarling. If you think it is happening, ask questions to get at the underlying intent of the words. If it turns out that it’s simply a poor choice of words, suggest better ones and move on. But if the intent is manipulation, it must be stopped in its tracks. It must be called by name, its negative implications must be be linked to the behavior and new behavioral norms must be set.

Words are the tools we use to make progress. The wrong words block progress and the right ones accelerate it.

Why not choose the right words?

Four Pillars of Innovation – People, Learning, Judgment and Trust

Innovation is a hot topic. Everyone wants to do it. And everyone wants a simple process that works step-wise – first this, then that, then success.

But Innovation isn’t like that. I think it’s more effective to think of innovation as a result. Innovation as something that emerges from a group of people who are trying to make a difference. In that way, Innovation is a people process. And like with all processes that depend on people, the Innovation process is fluid, dynamic, complex, and context-specific.

Innovation isn’t sequential, it’s not linear and cannot be scripted.. There is no best way to do it, no best tool, no best training, and no best outcome. There is no way to predict where the process will take you.  The only predictable thing is you’re better off doing it than not.

The key to Innovation is good judgment. And the key to good judgment is bad judgment. You’ve got to get things wrong before you know how to get them right. In the end, innovation comes down to maximizing the learning rate. And the teams with the highest learning rates are the teams that try the most things and use good judgement to decide what to try.

I used to take offense to the idea that trying the most things is the most effective way. But now, I believe  it is. That is not to say it’s best to try everything. It’s best to try the most things that are coherent with the situation as it is, the market conditions as they are, the competitive landscape as we know it, and the the facts as we know them.

And there are ways to try things that are more effective than others. Think small, focused experiments driven by a formal learning objective and supported by repeatable measurement systems and formalized decision criteria. The best teams define end implement the tightest, smallest experiment to learn what needs to be learned. With no excess resources and no wasted time, the team wins runs a tight experiment, measures the feedback, and takes immediate action based on the experimental results.

In short, the team that runs the most effective experiments learns the most, and the team that learns the most wins.

It all comes down to choosing what to learn. Or, another way to look at it is choosing the right problems to solve. If you solve new problems, you’ll learn new things. And if you have the sightedness to choose the right problems, you learn the right new things.

Sightedness is a difficult thing to define and a more difficult thing to hone and improve. If you were charged with creating a new business in a new commercial space and the survival of the company depended on the success of the project, who  would you want to choose the things to try? That person has sightedness.

Innovation is about people, learning, judgement and trust.

And innovation is more about why than how and more about who than what.

Image credit – Martin Nikolaj Christensen

Healthy Dissatisfaction

If you’re dissatisfied, there’s a reason.

If you’re dissatisfied, there’s hope for us all.

If you’re not dissatisfied, there’s no forcing function for change.

If you’re not dissatisfied, the status quo will carry the day.

If you’re not dissatisfied, innovation work is not for you.

If you’re dissatisfied, you know it could be better next time.

If you’re dissatisfied, your insecure leader will step on your head.

If you’re dissatisfied, there’s a reason and that reason is real.

If you’re dissatisfied, follow your dissatisfaction.

If you’re dissatisfied, I want to work with you.

If you’re dissatisfied, it’s because you see things as they are.

If you’re dissatisfied, your confident leader will ask how things should go next time.

If you’re dissatisfied, it’s because you want to make a difference.

If you’re dissatisfied, look inside.

If you’re dissatisfied, there’s a reason, the reason is real and it’s time to do something about it.

If you’re dissatisfied, you’re thinking for yourself.

If you’re so dissatisfied you openly show anger, thank you for trusting me enough to show your true self.

If you’re dissatisfied, it’s because you know things should be better than they are.

If you’re dissatisfied, do something about it.

If you’re dissatisfied, thank you for thinking deeply.

If you’re dissatisfied, it’s because you’re not asleep at the wheel.

If you’re dissatisfied, it’s because your self-worth allows it.

Thank you for caring enough to be dissatisfied.

Image credit – Vinod Chandar

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.

Cubicles – just say no.

Whether it’s placing machine tools on the factory floor or designing work spaces for people that work at the company, the number one guiding metric is resources per square foot. If you’re placing machine tools, this metric causes the machines to be stacked closely together, where the space between them is minimized, access to the machines is minimized, and the aisles are the smallest they can be. The result – the number of machines per square foot is maximized.

And though there has been talk of workplaces that promote effective interactions and creativity, the primary metric is still people per square foot. Don’t believe me?  I have one word for you – cubicles. Cubicles are the design solution of choice when you want to pack the most people into the smallest area.

Here’s a test. At your next team meeting, ask people to raise their hand if they hate working in a cubicle. I rest my case.

With cubicles, it’s the worst of both worlds.  There is none of the benefit of an office and none of the benefit of collaborative environment. They are half of neither.

What is one of Dilbert’s favorite topic? Cubicles.

If no one likes them, why do we still have them? If you want quiet, cubicles are the wrong answer. If you want effective collaboration, cubicles are the wrong answer. If everyone hates them, why do we still have them?

When people need to do deep work, they stay home so they can have peace and quiet. When people they want to concentrate, they avoid cubicles at all costs.  When you need to focus, you need quiet. And the best way to get quiet is with four walls and a door. Some would call that and office, but those are passe. And in some cases, they are outlawed. In either case, they are the best way to get some quiet time. And, as a side benefit, they also block interruptions.

Best way for people to interact is face-to-face.  And in order to interact at way, they’ve got to be in the same place at the same time. Sure spontaneous interactions are good, but it’s far better to facilitate interactions with a fixed schedule.  Like with a bus stop schedule, people know where to be and when. In that way, many people can come together efficiently and effectively and the number of interactions increases dramatically. So why not set up planned interactions at ten in the morning and two in the afternoon?

I propose a new metric for facilities design – number of good ideas per square foot. Good ideas require deep thought, so quiet is important. And good ideas require respectful interaction with others, so interactions are important.

I’m not exactly sure what a facility must look like to maximize the number of good ideas per square foot, but I do know it has no cubicles.

Image credit – Tim Patterson

To figure out what’s next, define the system as it is.

Every day starts and ends in the present. Sure, you can put yourself in the future and image what it could be or put yourself in the past and remember what was. But, neither domain is actionable. You can’t change the past, nor can you control the future.  The only thing that’s actionable is the present.

Every morning your day starts with the body you have.  You may have had a more pleasing body in the past, but that’s gone.  You may have visions of changing your body into something else, but you don’t have that yet. What you do today is governed and enabled by your body as it is. If you try to lift three hundred pounds, your system as it is will either pick it up or it won’t.

Every morning your day starts with the mind you have. It may have been busy and distracted in the past and it may be calm and settled in the future, but that doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is your mind as it is. If you respond kindly, today’s mind is responsible, and if your response is unkind, today’s mind system is the culprit.  Like it or not, your thoughts, feelings and actions are the result of your mind as it is.

Change always starts with where you are, and the first step is unclear until you assess and define your systems as they are. If you haven’t worked out in five years, your first step is to see your doctor to get clearance (professional assessment) for your upcoming physical improvement plan. If you’ve run ten marathons over the last ten months, your first step may be to take a month off to recover. The right next step starts with where you are.

And it’s the same with your mind. If your mind is all over the place your likely first step is to learn how to help it settle down.  And once it’s a little more settled, your next step may be to use more advanced methods to settle it further. And if you assess your mind and you see it needs more help than you can give it, your next step is to seek professional help. Again, your next step is defined by where you are.

And it’s the same with business.  Every morning starts with the products and services you have. You can’t sell the obsolete products you had, nor can you sell the future services you may develop. You can only sell what you have.  But, in parallel, you can create the next product or system.  And to do that, the first step is to take a deep, dispassionate look at the system as it is. What does it do well? What does it do poorly? What can be built on and what can be discarded?  There are a number of tools for this, but more important than the tools is to recognize that the next one starts with an assessment of the one you have.

If the existing system is young and immature, the first step is likely to nurture it and support it so it can grow out of its adolescence.  But the first step is NOT to lift three hundred pounds because the system-as it is-can only lift fifty. If you lift too much too early, you’ll break its back.

If the existing system is in it’s prime and has been going to the gym regularly for the last five years, its ready for three hundred pounds.  Go for it! But, in parallel, it’s time to start a new activity, one that will replace the weightlifting when the system can no longer lift like it used to.  Maybe tennis? But start now because to get good at tennis requires new muscles and time.

And if the existing system is ready for retirement, retire it. Difficult to do, but once there’s public acknowledgement, the retirement will take care of itself.

If you want to know what’s next, define the system as it is. The next step will be clear.

And the best time to do it is now.

Image credit – NASA

The right time horizon for technology development

Patents are the currency of technology and profits are the currency of business.  And as it turns out, if you focus on creating technology you’ll get technology (and patents) and if you focus on profits you’ll get profits. But if no one buys your technology (in the form of the products or services that use it), you’ll go out of business.  And if you focus exclusively on profits you won’t create technology and you’ll go out of business.  I’m not sure which path is faster or more dangerous, but I don’t think it matters because either way you’re out of business.

It’s easy to measure the number of patents and easier to measure profits.  But there’s a problem.  Not all patents (technologies) are equal and not all profits are equal.  You can have a stockpile of low-level patents that make small improvements to existing products/services and you can have a stockpile of profits generated by short-term business practices, both of which are far less valuable than they appear. If you measure the number of patents without evaluating the level of inventiveness, you’re running your business without a true understanding of how things really are.  And if you’re looking at the pile of profits without evaluating the long-term viability of the engine that created them you’re likely living beyond your means.

In both cases, it’s important to be aware of your time horizon.  You can create incremental technologies that create short term wins and consume all your resource so you can’t work on the longer-term technologies that reinvent your industry.  And you can implement business practices that eliminate costs and squeeze customers for next-quarter sales at the expense of building trust-based engines of growth.  It’s all about opportunity cost.

It’s easy to develop technologies and implement business processes for the short term.  And it’s equally easy to invest in the long term at the expense of today’s bottom line and payroll.  The trick is to balance short against long.

And for patents, to achieve the right balance rate your patents on the level of inventiveness.

Image credit – NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory

Is your tank empty?

Sometimes your energy level runs low.  That’s not a bad thing, it’s just how things go. Just like a car’s gas tank runs low, our gas tanks, both physical and emotional, also need filling.  Again, not a bad thing. That’s what gas tanks are for – they hold the fuel.

We’re pretty good at remembering that a car’s tank is finite.  At the start of the morning commute, the car’s fuel gauge gives a clear reading of the fuel level and we do the calculation to determine if we can make it or we need to stop for fuel.  And we do the same thing in the evening – look at the gauge, determine if we need fuel and act accordingly.  Rarely we run the car out of fuel because the car continuously monitors and displays the fuel level and we know there are consequences if we run out of fuel.

We’re not so good at remembering our personal tanks are finite. At the start of the day, there are no objective fuel gauges to display our internal fuel levels.  The only calculation we make – if we can make it out of bed we have enough fuel for the day. We need to do better than that.

Our bodies do have fuel gages of sorts.  When our fuel is low we can be irritable, we can have poor concentration, we can be easily distracted.  Though these gages are challenging to see and difficult to interpret, they can be used effectively if we slow down and be in our bodies.  The most troubling part has nothing to do with our internal fuel gages.  Most troubling is we fail to respect their low fuel warnings even when we do recognize them.  It’s like we don’t acknowledge our tanks are finite.

We don’t think our cars are flawed because their fuel tanks run low as we drive.  Yet, we see the finite nature of our internal fuel tanks as a sign of weakness. Why is that? Rationally, we know all fuel tanks are finite and their fuel level drops with activity. But, in the moment, when are tanks are low, we think something is wrong with us, we think we’re not whole, we think less of ourselves.

When your tank is low, don’t curse, don’t blame, don’t feel sorry and don’t judge.  It’s okay.  That’s what tanks do.

A simple rule for all empty tanks – put fuel in them.

Image credit – Hamed Saber

Choosing What To Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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