Posts Tagged ‘Lessons Learned’

See differently to solve differently.

There are many definitions for creativity and innovation, but none add meaningfully to how the work is done. Though it’s clear why the work is important – creativity and innovation underpin corporate prosperity and longevity – it’s especially helpful to know how to do it.

At the most basic level, creativity and innovation are about problem solving.  But it’s a special flavor of problem solving.  Creativity and innovation are about problems solving new problems in new ways.  The glamorous part is ‘solving in new ways’ and the important part is solving new problems.

With continuous improvement the same problems are solved over and over. Change this to eliminate waste, tweak that to reduce variation, adjust the same old thing to make it work a little better.  Sure, the problems change a bit, but they’re close cousins to the problems to the same old problems from last decade. With discontinuous improvement (which requires high levels of creativity and innovation) new problems are solved.  But how to tell if the problem is new?

Solving new problems starts with seeing problems differently.

Systems are large and complicated, and problems know how to hide in the nooks and crannies. In a Where’s Waldo way, the nugget of the problem buries itself in complication and misuses all the moving parts as distraction. Problems use complication as a cloaking mechanism so they are not seen as problems, but as symptoms.

Telescope to microscope. To see problems differently, zoom in.  Create a hand sketch of the problem at the microscopic level.  Start at the system level if you want, but zoom in until all you see is the problem.  Three rules: 1. Zoom in until there are only two elements on the page. 2. The two elements must touch. 3. The problem must reside between the two elements.

Noun-verb-noun. Think hammer hits nail and hammer hits thumb.  Hitting the nail is the reason people buy hammers and hitting the thumb is the problem.

A problem between two things. The hand sketch of the problem would show the face of the hammer head in contact with the surface of the thumb, and that’s all.  The problem is at the interface between the face of the hammer head and the surface of the thumb. It’s now clear where the problem must be solved. Not where the hand holds the shaft of the hammer, not at the claw, but where the face of the hammer smashes the thumb.

Before-during-after. The problem can be solved before the hammer smashes the thumb, while the hammer smashes the thumb, or after the thumb is smashed.  Which is the best way to solve it? It depends, that’s why it must be solved at the three times.

Advil and ice. Solving the problem after the fact is like repair or cleanup. The thumb has been smashed and repercussions are handled in the most expedient way.

Put something between. Solving the problem while it happens requires a blocking or protecting action. The hammer still hits the thumb, but the protective element takes the beating so the thumb doesn’t.

Hand in pocket. Solving the problem before it happens requires separation in time and space. Before the hammer can smash the thumb it is moved to a safe place – far away from where the hammer hits the nail.

Nail gun. If there’s no way for the thumb to get near the hammer mechanism, there is no problem.

Cordless drill. If there are no nails, there are no hammers and no problem.

Concrete walls. If there’s no need for wood, there’s no need for nails or a hammer. No hammer, no nails, no problem.

Discerning between symptoms and problems can help solve new problems. Seeing problems at the micro level can result in new solutions. Looking closely at problems to separate them time and space can help see problems differently.

Eliminating the tool responsible for the problem can get rid of the problem of a smashed thumb, but it creates another – how to provide the useful action of the driven nail.  But if you’ve been trying to protect thumbs for the last decade, you now have a chance to design a new way to fasten one piece of wood to another, create new walls that don’t use wood, or design structures that self-assemble.

Image credit – Rodger Evans

Put Yourself Out There

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only one holding you back is you.

Image credit – Mark Bonica

Learning at the expense of predicting.

john_william_waterhouse_-_the_crystal_ballWhen doing new things there is no predictability. There’s speculation, extrapolation and frustration, but no prediction. And the labels don’t matter.  Whether it’s called creativity, innovation, discontinuous improvement or disruption there’s no prediction.

The trick in the domain complexity is to make progress without prediction.

The first step is to try to define the learning objective.  The learning objective is what you want to learn. And its format is – We want to learn that [fill in the learning objective here].  It’s fastest to tackle one learning objective at a time because small learning objectives are achieved quickly with small experiments.  But, it will be a struggle to figure out what to learn.  There will be too many learning objectives and none will be defined narrowly.  At this stage the fastest thing to do is stop and take a step back.

There’s nothing worse than learning about the wrong thing.  And it’s slow. (The fastest learning experiments are the ones that don’t have to be run.) Before learning for the sake of learning, take the necessary time to figure out what to learn. Ask some questions: If it worked could it reinvent your industry? Could it obsolete your best product? Could it cause competitors to throw in the towel?  If the answer is no, stop the project and choose one where the answer is yes. Choose a meaningful project, or don’t bother.

First learning objective – We want to learn that, when customers love the new concept, the company will assign appropriate resources to commercialize it.  If there’s no committment up front, stop.  If you get committment, keep going. (Without upfront buy-in the project relies on speculation, the wicked couple of prediction and wishful thinking.)

Second learning objective – We want to learn that customers love the new concept.  This is not “I think customers will love it.” or “Customers may love it.” In the standard learning objective format – We want to learn that [customers love the new concept].  Next comes the learning plan.

What will you build for customers to help them understand the useful novelty of the revolutionary concept?  For speed’s sake, build a non-functional prototype that stands for the concept.  It’s a thin skin wrapped around an empty box that conveys the essence of the novelty.  No skeleton, just skin.  And for speed’s sake, show it to fewer customers than you think reasonable.  And define the criteria to decide they love it.  There’s no trick here. Ask “Do they love it?” and use your best judgement.  At this early stage, the answer will be no.  But they’ll tell you why they don’t love it, and that’s just the learning you’re looking for.

Use customer input to reformulate the learning objective and build a new prototype and repeat.  The key here is to build fast, test fast, learn fast and repeat fast.  The art becomes defining the simplest learning objectives, building the simplest prototypes and making decisions with data from the fewest customers.

With complexity and newness prediction isn’t possible. But learning is.

And learning doesn’t have to take a lot of time.

Image credit — John William Waterhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit – Francis Bijl

Celebrating Seven Years of Blog Posts – what I’ve learned about writing.

%desxToday marks seven years of weekly blog posts.  Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

When you can write about anything, what you choose tells everyone what you’re about.

Sometimes you’ve got to start writing to figure out what you have to say.

Some people think semicolons are okay; others don’t like to show off.

When you don’t want to write and you write anyway, you feel good when you’re done.

Use short sentences. Use fewer words.

Writing is the best way to learn you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Writing is a good way to have a deep conversation with yourself.

Worrying about what people will think is the surest way to write like crap.

Writing improves by writing.

When the topic comes slowly, start writing. And when the words don’t come at all, repeat.

If you don’t know what you are talking about before you start writing, no worries. You’ll know when you’re done.

When you have nothing to say it’s because what you have to say is too personal share.

For me, writing is learning.


Image credit David Kutschke


What if it works?

jumping-dogWhen money is tight, it’s still important to do new work, but it’s doubly important not to waste it.

There are a number of models to increase the probability of success of new work.  One well known approach is the VC model where multiple projects are run in parallel.  The trick is to start projects with the potential to deliver ultra-high returns.  The idea isn’t to minimize the investment but to place multiple bets.  When money’s tight, the VC model is not your friend.

Another method to increase the probability of success is to increase the learning rate.  The best known method is the Lean Startup method.  Come up with an idea, build a rough prototype, show it to potential customers and refine or pivot.  The process is repeated until a winning concept finds a previously unknown market segment and the money falls from the sky.   In a way, it’s like the VC Model, but it’s not a collection of projects run in parallel, it’s a sequential series of high return adventures punctuated by pivots. The Lean Startup is also quite good when money’s tight.  A shoe string budget fosters radical learning strategies and creates focus which are both good ideas when coffers are low.

And then there’s the VC/Lean Startup combo. A set of high potential projects run in parallel, each using Lean’s build, show, refine method to learn at light speed.  This is not the approach for empty pockets, but it’s a nice way to test game changing ideas quickly and efficiently.

Things are different when you try to do an innovation project within a successful company. Because the company is successful, all resources are highly utilized, if not triple-booked.  On the balance sheet there’s plenty of money, but practically the well is dry.  The organization is full up with ROI-based projects that will deliver marginal (but predictable) top line growth, and resources are tightly shackled to their projects.  Though there’s money in the bank, it feels like the account is over drawn.  And with this situation there’s a unique and expensive failure mode lurking in the shallows.

The front end of innovation work is resource light. New prototypes are created quickly and inexpensively and learning is fast and cheap.  Though the people doing the work are usually highly skilled and highly valuable, it doesn’t take a lot of people to create a functional prototype and test it with new customers.  And then, when the customers love it and it’s time to commercialize, there’s no one home. No one to do the work. And, unlike the relatively resource light front end work, commercialization work is resource heavy and expensive. The failure mode – the successful front end work is nothing but pure waste.  All the expense of creativity with none of innovation’s return.  And more painful, if the front end was successful the potential failure mode was destined to happen. There was no one to pick it up from the start.

The least expensive projects are the ones that never start. Before starting a project, ask “What if it works?”

image credit – jumping lab

The Cycle of Success

coccoon-now-transparentThere’s a huge amount of energy required to help an organization do new work.

At every turn the antibodies of the organization reject new ideas.  And it’s no surprise.  The organization was created to do more of what it did last time.  Once there’s success the organization forms structures to make sure it happens again.  Resources migrate to the successful work and walls form around them to prevent doing yet-to-be-successful work. This all makes sense while the top line is growing faster than the artificially set growth goal.  More resources applied to the successful leads to a steeper growth rate.  Plenty of work and plenty of profit.  No need for new ideas.  Everyone’s happy.

When growth rate of the successful company slows below arbitrary goal, the organization is slow to recognize it and slower to acknowledge it and even slower to assign true root cause.  Instead, the organization doubles down on what it knows.  More resources are applied, efficiency improvements are put in place, and clearer metrics are put in place to improve accountability.  Everyone works harder and works more hours and the growth rate increases a bit.  Success.  Except the success was too costly.  Though total success increased (growth), success per dollar actually decreased.  Still no need for new ideas.  Everyone’s happy, but more tired.

And then growth turns to contraction. With no more resources move to the successful work, accountability measures increase to unreasonable levels and people work beyond their level of effectiveness. But this time growth doesn’t come.  And because people are too focused on doing more of what used to work, new ideas are rejected.  When a new idea is proposed, it goes something like this “We don’t need new ideas, we need growth.  Now, get out of my way.  I’m too busy for your heretical ideas.”  There’s no growth and no tolerance for new ideas.  No one is happy.

And then a new idea that had been flying under the radar generates a little growth.  Not a lot, but enough to get noticed.  And when the old antibodies recognize the new ideas and try to reject it, they cannot.  It’s too late.  The new idea has developed a protective layer of growth and has become a resistant strain.  One new idea has been tolerated. Most are unhappy because there’s only one small pocket of growth and a few are happy because there’s one small pocket of growth.

It’s difficult to get the first new idea to become successful, but it’s worth the effort.  Successful new ideas help each other and multiply.  The first one breaks trail for the second one and the second one bolsters the third.  And as these new ideas become more successful something special happens.  Where they were resistant to the antibodies they become stronger than the antibodies and eat them.

Growth starts to grow and success builds on success.  And the cycle begins again.

Image credit – johnmccombs

Moving Away from Best Practices

rotten-appleIf the work is new, there is no best practice.

When you read the best books you’ll understand what worked in situations that are different than yours.  When you read the case studies you’ll understand how one company succeeded in a way that won’t work in yours.  The best practices in the literature worked in a different situation, in a different time and a under different cultural framework.  They won’t work best for you.

Just because a practice worked last time doesn’t mean it’s a best practice this time.  More strongly, just because it worked last time doesn’t mean it was best last time. There may have been a better way.

When a problem has high urgency it should be solved in a fast way, but if urgency is low, the problem should be solved in an efficient way. Which way is best? If the consequences of getting it wrong are severe, analyses and parallel solutions are skillful, but if it’s not terribly important to get it right, a lower cost way is better.  But is either the best way?

The best practices found in books are usually described a high level of abstraction using action words, block diagrams and arrows.  And when described at such a high level, they’re not actionable.  You may know all the major steps, but you won’t know how each step should be done.  And if the detail is provided, the context of your situation is different and the prescriptive steps don’t apply.

Instead of best practices, think effective practices.  Effective because the people doing the work can do it effectively.  Effective because it fits with the capability and capacity of the people doing the work.  Effective because it meshes with existing processes and projects.  Effective because it fits with your budget, timeline and risk profile.  Effective because it fits with your company values.

Because all our systems are people systems, there are no best practices.

image credit — johnwayne2006

Rule 1: Don’t start a project until you finish one.

done!One of the biggest mistakes I know is to get too little done by trying to do too much.

In high school we got too comfortable with partial credit. Start the problem the right way, make a few little mistakes and don’t actually finish the problem – 50% credit.  With product development, and other real life projects, there’s no partial credit.  A project that’s 90% done is worth nothing.  All the expense with none of the benefit.  Don’t launch, don’t sell. No finish, no credit.

But our ill-informed focus on productivity has hobbled us.  Because we think running projects in parallel is highly efficient, we start too many projects.  This glut does nothing more than slow down all the other projects in the pipeline.  It’s like we think queuing theory isn’t real because we don’t understand it.  But to be fair to queuing and our stockholders, queuing theory is real.

Queues are nothing more than a collection of wayward travelers waiting in line for a shared resource.  Wait in line for fast food, you’re part of a queue.  Wait in line for a bank teller (a resource,) you’re queued up.  Wait in line to board a plane, you’re waiting in a queue.  But the name isn’t important.  Line or queue, what matters is how long you wait.

Lines are queues and queues are lines, but the math behind them is funky.  From firsthand experience we know longer queues mean longer wait times. And if the cashier isn’t all that busy (in queuing language – the utilization of the resource is low) the wait time isn’t all that bad and it increases linearly with the number of people (or jobs) in the queue.  When the shared resource (cashier) isn’t highly utilized (not all that busy), add a few more shoppers per hour and wait times increase proportionately. But, and this is a big but, if the resource busy more than 80% of the time, increasing the number of shoppers increases the wait time astronomically (or exponentially.)  When shoppers arrive in front of the cashier just a bit more often, wait times can double or triple or more.

For wait times, the math of queueing theory says one plus one equals two and one plus one plus one equals seven.  Wait times increase linearly right up until they explode.  And when wait times explode, projects screech to a halt.  And because there’s no partial credit, it’s a parking lot of projects without any of the profit.  And what’s the worst thing to do when projects aren’t finishing quickly enough?  Start more projects.  And what do we do when projects aren’t launching quickly enough?  Start more projects.

When there’s no partial credit, instead of efficiency it’s better to focus on effectiveness.  Instead of counting the number of projects running in parallel (efficiency,) count the number of projects that have finished (effectiveness.)  To keep wait times reasonable, fiercely limit the amount of projects in the system.  And there’s a simple way to do that.  Figure out the sweet spot for your system, say, three projects in parallel, and create three project “tickets.” Give one ticket to the three active projects and when the project finishes, the project ticket gets assigned to the next project so it can start.  No project can start without a ticket.  No ticket, no project.

This simple ticket system caps the projects, or work in process (WIP,) so shared resources are utilized below 80% and wait times are low. Projects will sprint through their milestones and finish faster than ever.

By starting fewer projects you’ll finish more.  Stop starting and start finishing.

Image credit – Fred Moore

Always Tight on Time

HourglassThere always far more tasks than there is time.  Same for vacations and laundry.  And that’s why it’s important to learn when-and how-to say no.  No isn’t a cop-out.  No is ownership of the reality we can’t do everything.  The opposite of no isn’t maybe; the opposite of no is yes while knowing full well it won’t get done.  Where the no-in-the-now is skillful, the slow no is unskillful.

When you know the work won’t get done and when you know the trip to the Grand Canyon won’t happen, say no.  Where yes is the instigator of dilution, no is the keystone of effectiveness.

And once it’s yes, Parkinson’s law kicks you in the shins.  It’s not Parkinson’s good idea or Parkinson’s conjecture – it’s Parkinson’s law.  And it’s a law is because the work does, in fact, always fill the time available for its completion.  If the work fills the time available, it makes sense to me to define the time you’ll spend on a task before starting the task.  More important tasks are allocated more time, less important tasks get less and the least important get a no-in-the-now.  To beat Parkinson at his own game, use a timer.

Decide how much time you want to spend on a task.  Then, to improve efficiency, divide by two.  Set a countdown timer (I like Timer) and display it in the upper right corner of your computer screen. (As I write this post, my timer has 1:29 remaining.) As the timer counts down you’ll converge on completeness.

80% right, 100% done is a good mantra.

I guess I’m done now.

Image credit — bruno kvot




Stopping Before Starting

lonely travellerWhether it’s strategic planning or personal planning, work always outstrips capacity.  And whether it’s corporate growth or personal improvement, there’s always a desire to do more.  But the more-with-less and it’s-never-good-enough paradigms have overfilled everyone’s plates, and there’s no room for more. There is no more time to double-book and there are no more resources to double-dip.  Though the growth-on-all-fronts will not stop, more is not the answer.

Growth objectives and BHAGs are everywhere and there are more than too many good ideas to try.  And with salary increases and incentive compensation tied to performance and the accountability movement liberally slathered over the organization, there’s immense pressure to do more. There’s so much pressure to do more and so little tolerance for a resource-constrained “No, we can’t do that.” the people that do the work no longer no longer respond truthfully to the growth edict.  They are tired of fighting for timelines driven by work content and project pipelines based on resources.  Instead, they say yes to more, knowing full well that no will come later in the form of slipped timelines, missed specifications and disgruntled teams.

Starting is easy, but starting requires resources.  And with all resources over-booked for the next three years, starting must start with stopping.  Here’s a rule for our environment of fixed resources: no new projects without stopping an existing one. Finishing is the best form of stopping, but mid-project cancellation is next best.  Stopping is much more difficult than starting because stopping breaks commitments, changes compensation and changes who has power and control.  But in the age of growth and accountability, stopping before starting is the only way.

Stopping doesn’t come easy, so it’s best to start small.  The best place to start stopping is your calendar.  Look out three weeks and add up the hours of your standing meetings.  Write that number down and divide by two.  That’s your stopping target.

For meetings you own, cancel all the status meetings.  Instead of the status meeting write short status updates.  For your non-status meetings, reduce their duration by half.  Write down the hours of meetings you stopped. For meetings you attend, stop attending all status meetings. (If there’s no decision to be made at the meeting, it’s a status meeting.)  Read the status updates sent out by the meeting owner.  Write down the hours of meetings you stopped attending and add it to the previous number.

If you run meetings 3 hours a week and attend others meetings 5 hours per week, that’s 8 hours of meetings, leaving 32 for work. If you hit your stopping target you free up 4 hours per week.  It doesn’t sound meaningful, but it is.  It’s actually a 12% increase in work time. [(4÷32) x 100% = 12.5%]

The next step is counter intuitive – for every hour you free up set up an hour of recurring meetings with yourself. (4 hours stopped, 4 hours started.)  And because these new meetings with yourself must be used for new work, 12% of your time must be spent doing new work

The stopping mindset doesn’t stop at meetings.  Allocate 30 minutes a week in one of your new meetings (you set the agenda for them) to figure how to stop more work.  Continue this process until you’ve freed up 20% of your time for new work.

More isn’t the answer.  Stopping is.

Image credit – Craig Sefton

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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