Decide To Tackle The Impossible

20140129-203655.jpgDoing the impossible doesn’t take a long time, starting does. More precisely, what takes a long time is getting ready to start.  Getting ready is the gating item.  So what’s in the way?

The big deal about starting is other people will see you do it and they’ll judge you.  Your brain tells stories about how people will think you’re silly or incompetent for trying the outrageous.  It takes a long time to build the courage to start. But where starting is scary, getting ready is safe and comfortable.  Getting ready is done in the head – it’s a private process.  And because you do it in your head, you can do it without being judged, and you can do it for as long as you like.  And you can take comfort in getting ready because you rationalize you’re advancing the ball with your thinking.  (Hey, at least you’re thinking about it.)  But the real reason for staying in the getting ready domain is starting the fear around being judged for starting.

After you finally mustered the courage to start, you’ll get welcomed with all sorts of well-intentioned, ill-informed criticism.  The first one – We tried that before, and it didn’t work.  Thing is, it was so long ago no one remembers what was actually tried.  Also, no one remembers how many approaches were tried, and even fewer know why it didn’t work.  But, everyone’s adamant it won’t work because it didn’t work.  Your response – That was a long time ago, and things have changed since then.  There are new technologies to try, new materials that may work, new experimental methods, and new analytical methods to inform the work.

Now that you dismissed the we-already-tried-that’s, the resource police will show up at your door.  They’ll say – That’s a huge project and it will consume all our resources.  You can’t do that.  Your response – Well, I’m not eating the whole enchilada, I only taking the right first bite. And for that, I don’t need any extra resources.  You see, my friends and I really want to do this and we pooled our resources and narrowly defined the first bite.  So, as far as resources, I’m all set.

Now the alignment officers will find you.  They’ll say – Your off-topic mission impossible will confuse and distract our organization and we can’t have that.  You know there’s no place for passion and excitement around here.  Can you imagine engineers running around doing things that could disrupt our decrepit business model? We’ll no longer have control, and we don’t like that.  Please stop.  Your response – Let’s set up a meeting with the CEO who’s on the hook to create new businesses, and you can deliver that message face-to-face.  You want me to set up the meeting?

Lastly, the don’t-rock-the-boaters will nip at your heels.  They’ll say - Things are going pretty well.  Did you hear we’re laying off fewer people this quarter?   And, we’re losing less money this quarter.  Things are looking up.  And here you are trying something new, and scaring everyone half to death. You’ve got to stop that nonsense.  Your response – Though it may be scary, I have a hunch this crazy stuff could create a whole new business and help secure the company’s future.  And I have kids going to college in a couple years, and the company’s future is important to me.

When doing the impossible, the technical part is the easy part.  Once you decide to try, what you thought impossible comes quickly. What’s difficult is the people part.  Doing the impossible is unpredictable, and it cuts across grain of our culture of predictability.  For years it’s been well defined projects with guaranteed profits and completion dates etched in stone.  And after years of predictability injections people become the antibodies that reject the very work the company needs – the work that delivers the impossible.

No kidding – once you start the impossible, your organization will make it difficult for you.  But, that’s nothing compared to the difficulty of getting ready because in that phase, you must overcome the most powerful, sly, dangerous critic of all – yourself.

Bookmark and Share

Bridging The Chasm Between Technologists and Marketers

20140122-212144.jpgWhat’s a new market worth without a new technology to capture it? The same as a new technology without a new market – not much. Technology and market are a matched set, but not like peanut butter and jelly, (With enough milk, a peanut butter sandwich isn’t bad.) rather, more like H2 and O: whether it’s H2 without O or O without H2 – there’s no water. With technology and market, there’s no partial credit – there’s nothing without both.

You’d think with such a tight coupling, market and technology would be highly coordinated, but that’s not the case. There’s a deep organizational chasm between them. But worse, each has their own language, tools, and processes. Plain and simple, the two organizations don’t know how to talk to each other, and the result is the wrong technology for the right market (if you’re a marketer) or the right technology for the wrong market (if you’re a technologist.) Both ways, customers suffer and so do business results.

The biggest difference, however, is around customers. Where marketers pull, technologists push – can’t be more different than that. But neither is right, both are. There’s no sense arguing which is more important, which is right, or which worked better last time because you need both. No partial credit.

If you speak only French and have a meeting with someone who speaks only Portuguese, well, that’s like meeting between marketers and technologists. Both are busy as can be, and neither knows what the other is doing. There’s a huge need for translators – marketers that speak technologist and technologists that talk marketing. But how to develop them?

The first step is to develop a common understanding of why. Why do you want to develop the new market? Why hasn’t anyone been able to create the new market? Why can’t we develop a new technology to make it happen? It’s a good start when both sides have a common understanding of the whys.

To transcend the language barrier, don’t use words, use video. To help technologists understand unmet customer needs, show them a video of a real customer in action, a real customer with a real problem. No words, no sales pitch, just show the video. (Put your hand over your mouth if you have to.) Show them how the work is done, and straight away they’ll scurry to the lab and create the right new technologies to help you crack the new market. Technologists don’t believe marketers; technologists believe their own eyes, so let them.

To help marketers understand technology, don’t use words, use live demos. Technologists – set up a live demo to show what the technology can do. Put the marketer in front of the technology and let them drive, but you can’t tell them how to drive. You too must put your hand over your mouth. Let them understand it the way they want to understand it, the way a customer would understand it. They won’t use it the way you think they should, they’ll use it like a customer. Marketers don’t understand technology, they understand their own eyes, so let them.

And after the videos and the live demos, it’s time to agree on a customer surrogate. The customer surrogate usually takes the form of a fully defined test protocol and fully defined test results. And when done well, the surrogate generates test results that correlate with goodness needed to crack the new market. As the surrogate’s test results increase, so does goodness (as the customer defines it.) Instead of using words to agree on what the new technology must do, agreement is grounded in a well defined test protocol and a clear, repeatable set of test results. Everyone can use their eyes to watch the actual hardware being tested and see the actual test results. No words.

To close the loop and determine if everyone is on the same page, ask the marketers and technologist to co-create the marketing brochure for the new product. Since the brochure is written for the customer, it forces the team use plain language which can be understood by all. No marketing jargon or engineering speak – just plain language.

And now, with the marketing brochure written, it’s time to start creating the right new market and the right new technology.

Photo credit – TORLEY.

Bookmark and Share

Breaching the Wall of Denial

20140115-212051.jpg
To do innovation, you’ve got to be all in, both physically and mentally.  And to be all in, you’ve got to bust through one of the most powerful forces on the planet – denial.

Denial exists because seeing things as they are is scary. Denial prevents you from seeing problems so you can protect yourself from things that are scary. But the dark consequence of its protection is you block yourself from doing new things, from doing innovation.  Because you deny the truth of how things are, you don’t acknowledge problems; and because you don’t admit there’s a problem, there’s no forcing function for doing the difficult work of innovation.

Problems threaten, but problems have power.  Effectively harnessed, problems can be powerful enough to bust through denial.  But before you can grab them by the mane, you have to be emotionally strong enough to see them.  You have to be ready to see them; you have to be in the right mindset to see them; and because your organization will try to tear you down when you point to a big problem, you have to have a high self worth to stand tall.

Starting an innovation project is the toughest part and most important part.  Starting is the most important because 100% of all innovations projects that don’t start, fail. Those aren’t good odds.  And because starting is so emotionally difficult, people with high self worth are vital.  Plain and simple: they’re strong enough to start.

Denial helps you stay in your comfort zone, but that’s precisely where you don’t want to be.  To change and grow you’ve got to breach the wall of denial, and climb out of your comfort zone.

Bookmark and Share

The Parent of Learning

elbowHypothesis is a charged word – It has a scientific color; it smacks of sterility; it is thought to be done by academics; and it’s sometimes classified as special class of guessing. In thought and action, hypothesis is misunderstood.

We twist the word so it doesn’t apply in our situation; we label it to distance ourselves; we tag it with snarl connotations to protect ourselves. We do this because we’re afraid of the word’s power.

Replace hypothesis with “I think this will happen – [fill in the blank.]” and it’s clear why we’re afraid.  Hypothesis, as an activity, has the power to make it clear to everyone that you really don’t know what’s going on. Hypothesis demands you speculate based on your knowledge, and the fear is when you’re wrong (and you will be) people will think your knowledge (and you) is of a meager kind. Hypothesis demands you put yourself out there for the world to see. And that’s why it’s rarely done. And since it’s rarely done, its benefits are not understood.

Innovation is all the rage these days, and innovation is all about learning. And where necessity is the mother of invention, hypothesis is the father of learning. Hypothesis breeds learning by providing a comparison between what you thought would happen and what happened. The difference is a measure of your knowledge; and how the difference changes over time is a measure of your learning. If the difference widens over time, you’re getting cold; if it stays constant, you’re treading water; and if it converges, you’re learning.

Like a good parent, hypothesis knows which rules can be bent and which won’t be compromised. In the hypothesis household clarity and honesty are not optional – clarity around the problem at hand; clarity around how you’ll test and measure; and honesty around the limits of your knowledge.

Learning is important – no one can argue – and learning starts with a hypothesis. More strongly, learning is so important you should work through your fear around hypothesis and increase your learning rate.

Really, hypothesis isn’t the stern parent you think. Hypothesis will make time to teach you to ride your bike without training wheels, and be right there to bandage your skinned knees.

And, like a good parent, if you ask hypothesis for help, I think this will happen – [you’ll learn more and learn faster.]

Bookmark and Share

Letting Go Of Last Year

20140101-150548.jpg

Last year is gone, and going forward things will be different.  Last year’s you is gone, and going forward you will be different.  That’s the thing – everything changes. Regardless if last year was enjoyable or terrible, no matter. This year will be different.  You can try to hold on to it, but all you’ll get is rope burns. Or, you can take comfort in the impermanence.

Your company is different; your competitors are different; your customers are different.  In fact, everything is different.  And what you did last year won’t get the same response today.  Yet we hold on.  It’s difficult to see things as they are when there’s so much comfort in seeing things as they were.  Even if things weren’t so good last year, there’s comfort in seeing things as they were.

Toughest of all is to see yourself as you are. (I’m not talking about the body stuff – older, grayer, more wrinkles – that’s easy to see.  I’m talking about the inside stuff.) On the inside, you are not what you were last year.  You don’t have to know how you are different; just take comfort that you are different. Take comfort that right here, right now, as you sit, you are different, and so is everything else.

It’s difficult to plan out how things will go this year; and it’s impossible to predict how you’ll grow. Things will change; you will change; and putting yourself in that frame of mind can be helpful.

At the New Year, take time to celebrate the upcoming impermanence that will surely find you.

Photo from free HDR Photos – www.freestock.ca

Bookmark and Share

Gifts Are For The Giver

giveI’ve read emails from engineering students telling me I whipped them into a fervor over engineering.

I’ve received notes from engineering leaders that, based on a single line of a post, reinvented the cost signature of their products.

I’ve been sent messages from folks who were stuck in a rut, and after reading my post, were able to work through their self-imposed constraints.

My inbox has let me know a reader, after thinking about my thinking, tried something that truly scared them.

They all thanked me for what I gave them, but, really, I want to thank them for what they gave me.

They listened; they thought; they changed their behavior.  There can be no bigger gift.

I know not everyone celebrates my holiday, but, nonetheless, I want to share it with you.

Merry Christmas, and thanks for your gifts.

Bookmark and Share

Weak Signals And The Radical Fringe

We strive to get everyone on the same page, to align the crew in a shared direction. The thinking goes – If we’re all pulling in the same direction, we’ll get there faster and more efficiently. Yes, the destination will come sooner, but what if it’s not there when we get there?

There’s implicit permanence to our go-forward travel plans. We look out three years and plan our destination as if today’s rules and fundamentals will still apply. We think – That imaginary tropical vacation spot will be beautiful in three years because it looks beautiful through the kalidascope of today’s success. But as the recent natural disasters have taught us, whole islands can be destroyed in an instant. But still, the impermenance of today’s tried-and-true business models is lost on us, and we see the unknowable future as statically as the unchangeable map of the continents.

Thing is, all around us there are weak indications the fundamental tradewinds have started to shift – weak signals of impermenance that may invalidate today’s course heading. But weak signals are difficult to hear – the white noise of yesterday’s success drowns out the forward-looking weak signals.  And more problematic, once heard, weak signals are easily dismissed because their song threatens the successful status quo.

You feel weak signals in your chest. It could be a weak signal when your experience tells you things should go one way and they actually go another. Martin Zwilling (Forbes) has some great examples. (Thanks to Deb Mills-Scofield [@dscofield] for retweeting the article.)

100% alignment reduces adaptability because it deadens us to weak signals, and that’s a problem in these times of great impermanence. To counter the negative elements of alignment, there must be a balancing injection of healthy misalignment.  This is an important and thankless task falls on the shoulders of a special breed – the radical fringe.  They’re the folks smart enough to knit disjointed whispers into coherent ideas that could unravel everything and brave enough to test them.

Disruptive movements and revolutions build momentum quietly and slowly.  But if you can recognize them early, there’s a chance you can get into position to ride their tsunami instead of being ambushed and scuttled by it.  But you’ve got to listen closely because these young movements are stealthy and all they leave in their wake are weak signals.

Bookmark and Share

Tracking Toward The Future

Rusty TrainIt’s difficult to do something for the first time. Whether it’s a new approach, a new technology, or a new campaign, the mass of the past pulls our behavior back toward itself.  And sadly, whether the past has been successful or not, its mass, and therefore it’s pull, are about the same.  The past keeps us along the track of sameness.

Trains have tracks to enable them to move efficiently (cost per mile), and when you want to go where the train is heading, it’s all good. But when the tracks are going to the wrong destination, all that efficiency comes at the expense of effectiveness.  Like we’re on rails, company history keeps us on track, even if it’s time for a new direction.

The best trains run on a ritualistic schedule.  People queue up at same time every morning to meet their same predictable behemoth, and take comfort in slinking into their regular seats and turning off their brains.  And this is the train’s trick. It uses its regularity to lull riders into a hazy state of non-thinking – get on, sit down, and I’ll get your there – to blind passengers from seeing its highly limited timetable and its extreme inflexibility.  The train doesn’t want us to recognize that it’s not really about where the train wants to go.

Trains are powerful in their own right, but their real muscle comes from the immense sunk cost of their infrastructure. Previous generations invested billions in train stations, repair facilities, tight integration with bus lines, and the tracks, and it takes extreme strength of character to propose a new direction that doesn’t make use of the old, tired infrastructure that’s already paid for. Any new direction that requires a whole new infrastructure is a tough sell, and that’s why the best new directions transcend infrastructure altogether.  But for those new directions that require new infrastructure, the only way to go is a modular approach that takes the right size bites.

Our worn tracks were laid in a bygone era, and the important destinations of yesteryear are no longer relevant. It’s no longer viable to go where the train wants; we must go where we want.

Bookmark and Share

It Can’t Be Innovation If…

Riding Backward

Companies strive for predictability, yet if it’s predictable, it cannot be innovation.

We seek comfort in our work, but if it’s comfortable it can’t be innovation.

Businesses like to grow by selling more to the customers we have, but if existing customers can recognize it, it can’t be innovation.

We want to meet year end numbers, but if the project will generate profit in the year it begins, it can’t be innovation.

We love our standardized processes, but if it’s standard, it cannot be innovation.

If there’s consensus, it’s not innovation.

If the project isn’t wreaking havoc with your organizational norms, it can’t be innovation.

If the market already exists, it can’t be innovation.

If you’ve done it before, it can’t be innovation.

If you are following a best practice, it can’t be innovation.

If there’s a high probability it will work, it can’t be innovation.

If people aren’t threatened, it can’t be innovation.

Bookmark and Share

Crossword Puzzle – Product, Technology, Innovation

Here’s something a little different – a crossword puzzle to test your knowledge on products, technology, and innovation. Complete the puzzle using the image  below, or download it (and answer key) using the green arrows below, and take your time with it over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Crossword - Product Technology Innovation

Bookmark and Share

Less Before More – Innovation’s Little Secret

8634449207_861ed9ddbd_zThe natural mindset of innovation is more-centric. More throughput; more performance; more features and functions; more services; more sales regions and markets; more applications; more of what worked last time. With innovation, we naturally gravitate toward more.

There are two flavors of more, one better than the other. The better brother is more that does something for the first time. For example, the addition of the first airbags to automobiles – clearly an addition (previous vehicles had none) and clearly a meaningful innovation. More people survived car crashes because of the new airbags. This something-from-nothing more is magic, innovative, and scarce.

Most more work is of a lesser class – the more-of-what-is class. Where the first airbags were amazing, moving from eight airbags to nine – not so much. When the first safety razors replaced straight razors, they virtually eliminated fatal and almost fatal injuries, which was a big deal; but when the third and fourth blades were added, it was more trivial than magical. It was more for more’s sake; it was more because we didn’t know what else to do.

While more is more natural, less is more powerful. The Innovator’s Dilemma clearly called out the power of less. When the long-in-the-tooth S-curve flattens, Christensen says to look down, to look down and create technologies that do less. Actually, he tells us someone will give ground on the very thing that built the venerable S-curve to make possible a done-for-the-first-time innovation.  He goes on to say you might as well be the one to dismantle your S-curve before a somebody else beats you to it. Yes, a wonderful way to realize the juciest innovation is with a less-centric mindset.

The LED revolution was made possible with less-centric thinking. As the incandescent S-curve hit puberty, wattage climbed and more powerful lights became cost effective; and as it matured, output per unit cost increased. More on more.  And looking down from the graying S-curve was the lowly LED, whose output was far, far less.

But what the LED gave up in output it gained in less power draw and smaller size.  As it turned out, there was a need for light where there had been none – in highly mobile applications where less size and weight were prized. And in these new applications, there was just a wisp of available power, and incandesent’s power draw was too much.  If only there was a technology with less power draw.

But at the start, volumes for LEDs were far less than incandesent’s; profit margin was less; and most importantly, their output was far less than any self-respecting lightbulb.  From on high, LEDs weren’t real lights; they were toys that would never amount to anything.

You can break intellectual inertia around more, and good things will happen. New design space is created from thin air once you are forced from the familiar. But it takes force. Creative use of constraints can help.

Get a small team together and creatively construct constraints that outlaw the goodness that makes your product great. The incandescent group’s constraint could be: create a light source that must make far less light. The automotive group’s constraint: create a vehicle that must have less range – battery powered cars.  The smartphone group: create a smartphone with the fewest functions – wrist phone without Blutooth to something in your pocket , longer battery life, phone in the ear, phone in your eyeglasses.

Less is unnatural, and less is scary. The fear is your customers will get less and they won’t like it. But don’t be afraid because you’re going to sell to altogether different customers in altogether markets and applications. And fear not, because to those new customers you’ll sell more, not less. You’ll sell them something that’s the first of its kind, something that does more of what hasn’t been done before. It may do only a little bit of that something, but that’s far more than not being able to do it all.

Don’t tell anyone, but the next level of more will come from less.

Bookmark and Share
Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
Subscribe via Email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner