Archive for the ‘Uncertainty’ Category

Wrong Questions to Ask When Doing Technology Development

I know you’re trying to do something that has never been done before, but when will you be done? I don’t know.  We’ll run the next experiment then decide what to do next.  If it works, we’ll do more of that.  And if it doesn’t, we’ll do less of that. That’s all we know right now.

I know you’re trying to create something that is new to our industry, but how many will we sell? I don’t know. Initial interviews with customers made it clear that this is an important customer problem. So, we’re trying to figure out if the technology can provide a viable solution.  That’s all we know right now.

No one is asking for that obscure technology. Why are you wasting time working on that?  Well, the voice of the technology and the S-curve analyses suggest the technology wants to move in this direction, so we’re investing this solution space.  It might work and it might not.  That’s all we know right now.

Why aren’t you using best practices? If it hasn’t been done before, there can be no best practice.  We prefer to use good practice or emergent practice.

There doesn’t seem like there’s been much progress.  Why aren’t you running more experiments? We don’t know which experiments to run, so we’re taking some time to think about what to do next.

Will it work?  I don’t know.

That new technology may obsolete our most profitable product line.  Shouldn’t you stop work on that? No. If we don’t obsolete our best work, someone else will. Wouldn’t it be better if we did the obsoleting?

How many more people do you need to accelerate the technology development work? None.  Small teams are better.

Sure, it’s a cool technology, but how much will it cost?  We haven’t earned the right to think about the cost.  We’re still trying to make it work.

So, what’s your solution? We don’t know yet.  We’re still trying to formulate the customer problem.

You said you’d be done two months ago.  Why aren’t you done yet? I never said we’d be done two months ago. You asked me for a completion date and I could not tell you when we’d be done.  You didn’t like that answer so I suggested that you choose your favorite date and put that into your spreadsheet. We were never going to hit that date, and we didn’t.

We’ve got a tight timeline.  Why are you going home at 5:00? We’ve been working on this technology for the last two years.  This is a marathon.  We’re mentally exhausted.  See you tomorrow.

If you don’t work harder, we’ll get someone else to do the technology development work.  What do you think about that? You are confusing activity with progress.  We are doing the right analyses and the right thinking and we’re working hard.  But if you’d rather have someone else lead this work, so would I.

We need a patented solution.  Will your solution be patentable? I don’t know because we don’t yet have a solution. And when we do have a solution, we still won’t know because it takes a year or three for the Patent Office to make that decision.

So, you’re telling me this might not work?  Yes. That’s what I’m telling you.

So, you don’t know when you’ll be done with the technology work, you don’t know how much the technology will cost, you don’t know if it will be patentable, or who will buy it? That’s about right.

Image credit — Virtual EyeSee

Mutual Trust, Intuitive Skill, and Center of Emphasis

Mutual Trust. Who do you trust implicitly? And of that shortlist, who trusts you implicitly? You know how they’ll respond. You know what decision they’ll make. And you don’t have to keep tabs on them and you don’t have to manage them. You do your thing and they do theirs and, without coordinating, everything meshes.

When you have mutual trust, you can move at lightning speed. No second-guessing. No hesitation. No debates. Just rapid progress in a favorable direction. Your eyes are their eyes. Their ears are your ears. One person in two bodies.

If I could choose one thing to have, I’d choose mutual trust.

Mutual trust requires shared values. So, choose team members with values that you value. And mutual trust is developed slowly over time as you work together to solve the toughest problems with the fewest resources and the tightest timelines. Without shared values, you can’t have mutual trust. And without joint work on enigmatic problems, you can’t have mutual trust.

Mutual trust is a result. And when your trust-based relationships are more powerful than the formal reporting structure, you’ve arrived.

Intuitive Skill. In today’s world, decisions must be made quickly. And to make good decisions under unreasonable time constraints and far too little data requires implicit knowledge and intuitive skill. Have you read the literature? Have you studied the history? Have you drilled, and drilled, and drilled again? Did you get the best training? Have you honed your philosophy by doing the hard work? Have you done things badly, learned the hard lessons, and embossed those learnings on your soul? Have you done it so many times you know how it will go? Have you done it so many different ways your body knows how it should respond in unfamiliar situations?

If you have to think about it, you don’t yet have intuitive skill.  If you can explain why you know what to do, you don’t have intuitive skill. Make no mistake.  Intuitive skill does not come solely from experience.  It comes from study, from research, from good teachers, and from soul searching.

When your body starts doing the right thing before your brain realizes you’re doing it, you have intuitive skill.  And when you have intuitive skill, you can move at light speed.  When it takes more time to explain your decision than it does to make it, you have intuitive skill.

Center of Mass, Center of Emphasis. Do you focus on one thing for a week at a time? And do you wake up dreaming about it? And do you find yourself telling people that we’ll think about something else when this thing is done? Do you like doing one thing in a row? Do you delay starting until you finish finishing? Do you give yourself (and others) the flexibility to get it done any way they see fit, as long as it gets done? If the answer is yes to all these, you may be skilled in center-of-emphasis thinking.

The trick here is to know what you want to get done, but have the discipline to be flexible on how it gets done.

Here’s a rule.  If you’re the one who decides what to do, you shouldn’t be the one who decides the best way to do it.

Yes, be singularly focused on the objective, but let the boots-on-the-ground circumstances and the context of the moment define the approach. And let the people closest to the problem figure out the best way to solve it because the context is always changing, the territory is always changing, and the local weather is always changing. And the right approach is defined by the specific conditions of the moment.

Build trust and earn it. And repeat. Practice, study, do, and learn. Hone and refine. And repeat. And choose the most important center of emphasis and let the people closest to the problem choose how to solve it. And then build trust and earn it.

This post was inspired by Taylor Pearson and John Boyd, the creator of the OODA loop.

Image credit – Andy Maguire

Battling Judgment

Judging results when things are different than our expectations.

If you don’t like being judged, stop judging yourself.

No one can judge you without your consent, even you.

If someone judges you, that’s about them.

People’s judgment of you is none of your business.

When you see a friend judging themselves, give them a hug. A virtual one will do.

Judging someone means you want them to be different than they are.

If someone gives you a gift and you don’t accept it, it’s still theirs. Judgment is like that.

If you’re afraid of being judged for trying something new, be afraid, and try it anyway.

Judgment is objective evidence of disapproval if you accept it.

Judging someone won’t change their behavior, other than make them angry.

When you see a friend being judged, give them a hug (in a social distance way.)

When someone judges you, don’t worry.  In ten years, no one will remember.

When someone tries to judge you, let them try.

If you do your best, why do you think it’s okay to judge yourself about the outcome?

If you don’t do your best, don’t judge. Ask why.

Judgment can debilitate, but only if you let it.

Image credit — Stuart Richards

Learn to Recognize Waiting

If you want to do a task, but you don’t have what you need, that’s waiting for a support resource. If you need a tool, but you don’t have it, you wait for a tool. If you need someone to do the task, but you don’t have anyone, you wait for people. If you need some information to make a decision, but you don’t have it, you wait for information.

If a tool is expensive, usually you have to wait for it. The thinking goes like this – the tool is expensive, so let’s share the cost over too many projects and too many teams. Sure, less work will get done, but when we run the numbers, the tool will look less expensive because it’s used by many people.  If you see a long line of people (waiting) or a signup list (people waiting at their desks), what they are waiting for is usually an expensive tool or resource. In that way, to find the cause of waiting, stand at the front of the line and look around. What you see is the cause of the waiting.

If the tool isn’t expensive, buy another one and reduce the waiting. If the tool is expensive, calculate the cost of delay.  Cost of delay is commonly used with product development projects. If the project is delayed by a month, the incremental revenue from the product launch is also delayed by a month.  That incremental revenue is the cost of delaying the project by a month. When the cost of delay is larger than the cost of an expensive tool, it makes sense to buy another expensive tool. But, to purchase that expensive tool requires multiple levels of approvals.  So, the waiting caused by the tool results in waiting for approval for the new tool. I guess there’s a cost of delay for the approval process, but let’s not go there.

Most companies have more projects than people, and that’s why projects wait. And when projects wait, projects are late. Adding people is like getting another expensive tool.  They are spread over too many projects, and too little gets done. And like with expensive tools, getting more people doesn’t come easy. New hires can be justified (more waiting in the approval queue), but that takes time to find them, hire them, and train them. Hiring temporary people is a good option, though that can seem too expensive (higher hourly rate), it requires approval, and it takes time to train them.  Moving people from one project to another is often the best way because it’s quick and the training requirement is less.  But, when one project gains a person, another project loses one. And that’s often the rub.

When it’s time to make an important decision and the team has to wait for missing information, the project waits. And when projects wait, projects are late. It’s difficult to see the waiting caused by missing or uncommunicated information, but it can be done. The easiest to see when the information itself is a project deliverable. If a milestone review requires a formal presentation of the information, the review cannot be held without it. The delay of the milestone review (waiting) is objective evidence of missing information.

Information-based waiting is relatively easy to see when the missing information violates a precedent for decision making.  For example, if the decision is always made with a defined set of data or information, and that information is missing, the precedent is violated and everyone knows the decision cannot be made. In this case, everyone’s clear why the decision cannot be made, everyone’s clear on what information is missing, and everyone’s clear on who dropped the ball.

It’s most difficult to recognize information-based waiting when the decision is new or different and requires judgment because there’s no requirement for the data and there’s no precedent to fall back on. If the information was formally requested and linked to the decision, it’s clear the information is missing and the decision will be delayed.  But if it’s a new situation and there’s no agreement on what information is required for the decision, it’s almost impossible to discern if the information is missing. In this situation, it comes down to trust in the decision-maker. If you trust the decision-maker and they say there’s information missing, then there’s information missing. If you trust the decision-maker and they say there’s no information missing, they should make the decision. But if you don’t trust the decision-maker, then all bets are off.

In general, waiting is bad.  And it’s helpful if you can recognize when projects are waiting. Waiting is especially bad went the delayed task is on the critical path because when the project is waiting on a task that’s on the critical path, there’s a day-for-day slip in the completion date.  Hint: it’s important to know which tasks and decisions are on the critical path.

Image credit — Tomasz Baranowski

Strategy, Tactics, and Action

When it comes to strategy and tactics, there are a lot of definitions, a lot of disagreement, and a whole lot of confusion. When is it strategy? When is it tactics? Which is more important? How do they inform each other?

Instead of definitions and disagreement, I want to start with agreement.  Everyone agrees that both strategy AND tactics are required. If you have one without the other, it’s just not the same. It’s like with shoes and socks: Without shoes, your feet get wet; without socks, you get blisters; and when you have both, things go a lot better.  Strategy and tactics work best when they’re done together.

The objective of strategy and tactics is to help everyone take the right action.  Done well, everyone from the board room to the trenches knows how to take action. In that way, here are some questions to ask to help decide if your strategy and tactics are actionable.

What will we do? This gets to the heart of it.  You’ve got to be able to make a list of things that will get done. Real things. Real actions. Don’t be fooled by babble like “We will provide customer value” and “Will grow the company by X%.” Providing customer value may be a good idea, but it’s not actionable. And growing the company by an arbitrary percentage is aspirational, but not actionable.

Why will we do it? This one helps people know what’s powering the work and helps them judge whether their actions are in line with that forcing function. Here’s a powerful answer: Competitors now have products and services that are better than ours, and we can’t have that. This answer conveys the importance of the work and helps everyone put the right amount of energy into their actions. [Note: this question can be asked before the first one.]

Who will do it? Here’s a rule: if no one is freed up to do the new work, the new work won’t get done. Make a list of the teams that will stop their existing projects before they can take action on the new work. Make a list of the new positions that are in the budget to support the strategy and tactics. Make a list of the new companies you’ll partner with. Make a list of all the incremental funding that has been put in the budget to help all the new people complete all these new actions.  If your lists are short or you can make any, you don’t have what it takes to get the work done.  You don’t have a strategy and you don’t have tactics.  You have an unfunded mandate.  Run away.

When will it be done? All actions must have completion dates.  The dates will be set without consideration of the work content, so they’ll be wrong.  Even still, you should have them. And once you have the dates, double all the task durations and push out the dates in your mind.  No need to change the schedule now (you can’t change it anyway) because it will get updated when the work doesn’t get done on time. Now, using your lists of incremental headcount and budget, assign the incremental resources to all the actions with completion dates. Look for actions and budgets as those are objective evidence of the unfunded mandate character of your strategy and tactics. And for actions without completion dates, disregard them because they can never be late.

How will we know it’s done? All actions must call out a definition of success (DOS) that defines when the action has been accomplished. Without a measurable DOS, no one is sure when they’re done so they’ll keep working until you stop them.  And you don’t want that.  You want them to know when they’re done so they can quickly move on to the next action without oversight. If there’s no time to create a DOS, the action isn’t all that important and neither is the completion date.

When the wheels fall off, and they will, how will we update the strategy and tactics? Strategy and tactics are forward-looking and looking forward is rife with uncertainty.  You’ll be wrong.  What actions will you take to see if everything is going as planned? What actions will you take when progress doesn’t meet the plan? What actions will you take when you learn your tactics aren’t working and your strategy needs a band-aid? What will you do? Who will do it? When will it be done? And how will you know it’s done?

Image credit: Eric Minbiole

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

Uncertainty Isn’t All Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit — Alexandra E Rust

 

520 Wednesdays in a Row

This is a special post for me. It’s a huge milestone. With this post, I have written a new blog post every Wednesday evening for the last ten years. That’s 520 Wednesdays in a row. I haven’t missed a single one and none have been repeats.  As I write this, the significance is starting to sink in.

Most of the posts I’ve written at the kitchen table with my earbuds set firmly in my ears and my family going about its business around me. But I’ve written them in the car; I’ve written them in a hospital waiting room; I’ve written them in a diner over lunch while on a three-week motorcycle trip, and I’ve written them at a state park while on vacation.  No matter what, I’ve published a post on Wednesday night.

I write to challenge myself.  I write to teach myself. I write to provide my own mentorship. I have no one to proof my writing and there are always mistakes of grammar, spelling and word choice. But that doesn’t stop me. No one limits the topics I cover, nor does anyone help me choose a topic. It’s just me and my laptop battling it out. It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s the way it has been for the last ten years.

I used to read, respond and obsess over comments written by readers, but I started to limit my writing based on them so now my posts are closed to comments. I write more freely now, but I miss the connection that came from the comments.

I used to obsessively track the number of subscribers and Google analytics data. Now I don’t know how many subscribers I have, nor do I know who has visited my website over the last couple of years. Now I just write. But maybe I should check.

When you can write about anything you want, the topics you choose make a fingerprint, or maybe a soul-print. I don’t know what my choices say about me, but that’s the old me.

What’s the grand plan? There isn’t one. What’s next? It’s uncertain.

Thanks for reading.

Mike

 

image credit — Joey Gannon

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

Transcending a Culture of Continuous Improvement

We’ve been too successful with continuous improvement. Year-on-year, we’ve improved productivity and costs.  We’ve improved on our existing products, making them slightly better and adding features.

Our recipe for success is the same as last year plus three percent. And because the customers liked the old one, they’ll like the new one just a bit more. And the sales can sell the new one because its sold the same way as the old one.  And the people that buy the new one are the same people that bought the old one.

Continuous improvement is a tried-and-true approach that has generated the profits and made us successful. And everyone knows how to do it.  Start with the old one and make it a little better. Do what you did last time (and what you did the time before). The trouble is that continuous improvement runs out of gas at some point. Each year it gets harder to squeeze out a little more and each year the return on investment diminishes. And at some point, the same old improvements don’t come. And if they do, customers don’t care because the product was already better than good enough.

But a bigger problem is that the company forgets to do innovative work. Though there’s recognition it’s time to do something different, the organization doesn’t have the muscles to pull it off. At every turn, the organization will revert to what it did last time.

It’s no small feat to inject new work into a company that has been successful with continuous improvement.  A company gets hooked on the predictable results of continuous which grows into an unnatural aversion to all things different.

To start turning the innovation flywheel, many things must change. To start, a team is created and separated from the continuously improving core.  Metrics are changed, leadership is changed and the projects are changed. In short, the people, processes, and tools must be built to deal with the inherent uncertainty that comes with new work.

Where continuous improvement is about the predictability of improving what is, innovation is about the uncertainty of creating what is yet to be. And the best way I know to battle uncertainty is to become a learning organization.  And the best way to start that journey is to create formal learning objectives.

Define what you want to learn but make sure you’re not trying to learn the same old things. Learn how to create new value  for customers; learn how to deliver that value to new customers; learn how to deliver that new value in new ways (new business models.)

If you’re learning the same old things in the same old way, you’re not doing innovation.

What if you were gone for a month?

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit — Biker Biker

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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