I can’t imagine a less appealing career than being a video game villain. No matter how hard you try, or how many henchmen you hire, the hero is destined to win the game. Castles broken. Airships grounded. Treasure looted. So what does the video game villain do next? They build a different castle, marginally tougher, but still pretty much using the same stuff. Insanity? Maybe. But definitely on the way to a breakthrough innovation.
“Whaaaaa?” you exclaim in disbelief. We’ll get there, but first we need to take a slight detour. Let’s set some common terms by grouping Innovation into three levels.
Level 1 is sustaining innovation.
This is where you do what you’ve done, just better. You are reorganizing pieces of what you have, maybe pushing a piece up a notch or two, and in the end you have a better version of what you do. Fits in your existing business model.
Level 2 is breakthrough innovation.
At this level you are still remixing your existing components like in Level 1. However this time you find a magical combination that is greater than the sum of its parts. It takes you into new territories. Still fits the vision but pushes the limits of your business model (if it doesn’t force you to change).
Level 3 is disruptive innovation.
This involves some new elements to the mix. Maybe its new technology, processes, or market strategies, but you are definitely off the status quo path. If you remixed every piece of your org, you wouldn’t arrive at this innovation which means you’re definitely looking at a new business model.
Video game villains are great at sustaining innovation. With the same blocks and baddies from their Stage 1 Basicworld, they are able remix a whole suite of levels. The first is very simple, but with each defeat the villain concocts a new version that’s moderatly tougher. They’re taking little bets by using what they have in this stage.
Breakthrough innovation happens between the stages. This is when the core obstacles remain the same (something is trying to run into you, smash you, or blast you), there is a new twist that adds the unique value to the stage. This time the villain built his defenses under water forcing you to swim to victory. This time the villain set up shop in the sky, saying “I wonder if the hero can stop me if I just remove the ground?” Still mostly the same core mechanics of hopping, dodging, and running, but they’re being used in new ways.
So when you’re ideating around some sustaining innovation, embrace your inner video game villain! Still use the Basicworld pieces you have but what is a unique twist you can add to them to make it a new stage. What’s your Lavaworld? What’s your Spaceworld? Be the ruler of your own Awesomeworld!
I remember watching Bob Ross paint his happy trees and powerful mountains and just being in awe of his calmness and lack of fear of “happy little accidents”. When I painted “accidents” usually involved large splotches of the wrong color paint. They didn’t qualify as “happy” or “little”. Bob Ross just made it seem so easy as he pulled palm tree branches out of a single line of black paint.
Recently I learned the picture he painted on television was not the first time he painted it. Bob regularly painted the scene once before, which was kept off-screen as a reference. Now honestly, the difference in the level of skill between Bob Ross and I was huge, but I was at another disadvantage.
I was comparing my first try to his second.
There is a ton of learning that happens between tries. Lines become smoother, decisions are easier, and you have better command of the paint on the brush. And this is something we do all the time. We compare our beginnings to the middles of others.
“Sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.” – Jake the Dog
You’ve got to give yourself permission to fail, to not be good at something. At one point, all experts struggled with the basics. There was a time when Albert Einstein didn’t know his ABC’s. As Laozi said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, and often that first step is more of a stumble. And that’s ok. We’re chasing something new, something better. We don’t have to be perfect at it yet; we’re learning.
As we learn, we’re a bad judge of our own skill. It starts with the “I can paint that!” bravado of someone who’s never painted, an over-estimation of abilities that is part of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Beyond that peak is a deep valley of doubting your own ability. This is where the Impostor Syndrome lives and it can shake you off the pursuit of learning something new. This is the where most of the beginning to middle comparison happens, and when it is the most damaging.
You have to remember that you are learning and maybe you haven’t mastered it yet. But the key word is “yet“. You determine your own finish line. You can even determine your own starting line. Instead of wishing that you had learned something earlier in life, get started! Now is better than tomorrow.
Just from the act of trying something new we have the ability to practice the beginner’s mind (Shoshin). Without years of practice or knowledge, our eyes are untainted with preconceptions or the “ways things have always been done”. If we let ourselves be openminded, we can see the forest AND the trees, instead of only one in lieu of the other. This is a time when we might find new ways hidden from the experts, when we might challenge even the most foundational tenets, when we might ask “Well why not?”.
Get out there. Start painting trees on your landscape. They may not be the best trees but you’ve got the power of “yet”. And always welcome happy little accidents on your journey to learning something new.
It’s that time of year again! The internet is littered with “Top 10 [these things] of 2015” lists. Tweets and updates center around what friends and family plan on accomplishing within the next 12 months. But every time you see a “I’m going to lose X pounds this year” update, know that you are reading a goal.
I’m not saying they are losers. I’m saying they are playing a losing game. Boardgames are no fun when halfway through you realize that you have no hope of ever catching up to the leader. I’ve played these games with my younger brother who will CRUSH all in his path. I’ve looked over at his gargantuan pile of cardboard wealth and watched mine wither more than once. But a good game has mechanics that keep all players in the game. There are ways to get back up front. The Bullet Bill power-up is only available to those trailing in Mario Kart.
Setting a goal is playing a game where you are constantly in failure, until you’ve succeeded. If my goal was to get a promotion, everyday that I don’t have my promotion is a day that I haven’t hit my goal. And even when I do, what then? I’ve reached a waypoint but I don’t have any other direction.
Goals are waypoints; places to be reached. Systems are a compass; they provide global direction.
Instead of setting a promotion as a goal, I should define a system that makes me more valuable to my company. Maybe, along the way I will earn that promotion. Both before and after, I have the ability to work successfully within my system. Success is within my grasp and in my control, each day.
“A good system shortens the road to the goal.” Orison Swett Marden
Don’t abandon goals altogether because when used with a system, they are still hugely important. We set them constantly in innovation. They are the success metrics for each prototype. They are the conversion rates in A/B testing. Running lean and using design thinking are systems; systems that leverage and make use of goals. One can not live on goals alone.
“A bad system will beat a good person every time.” W. Edwards Deming
If you’ll allow me a short sports metaphor real quick, let’s talk about Notre Dame football. I don’t have details but I do have experience and I am 87.3% sure that Notre Dame’s players decide what their goals are going to be for the season. Probably “Beat Stanford” or “Play in a major bowl game” are in there. Until they play Stanford, that goal has not be achieved. When they do play Stanford, success and failure are equally within grasp. After the game, they cross that goal off as either DONE or FAIL and then… focus on a new goal? Drift directionless in a sea of college football powerhouses? No. Notre Dame has a system that is more important than their goals.
“Play like a champion TODAY.” Notre Dame Football’s system
Goals are good as measures of your system, but make sure your goals aren’t vanity metrics.
So as you and I and everyone on Facebook sets goals for the upcoming year, also think of a system that can help guide you through those goal waypoints to a you beyond your expectations. And we’d be honored if “Go forth and be awesome” was a part of your system!
Driving home on the final day of high school, I fell asleep at the wheel. I awoke only a handful of instants before slamming head on into a telephone pole. Luckily, in those spare milliseconds, I was instinctively wrenched the wheel to the left even though collision was imminent. Continue reading →
Numbers never lie. However numbers can be misleading, even when they don’t mean to be.
One thing that my good friend Joe Greaser has often said “If someone is bragging about their data, it is probably a bunch of vanity metrics.”
Eric Reis (Lean Startup) brought the term “vanity metric” to light. They are the metrics that sound really good, but in the end don’t amount to much. In contrast to vanity metrics are the actionable metrics. These metrics are tied to specific actions or tests and inform you on what to do with them. “My app has had 50,000 downloads.” Vanity metric. “I tested two versions of my app and customers purchased 40% more through the B version.” Actionable metric.
Another one of my good friends, Mike Jarrell, was going to a sporting event where they were promoting stadium upgrades. “87% more female restroom facilities and 20% more male facilities!” At first glance you say “Wow! They really understand that lines for the women’s restroom at sporting events can be painfully long.
But are we falling into the trap of vanity metrics?
Let’s take this to absurdity to prove a point. Assume that Innovation Stadium has 5 female restrooms and 20 male restrooms. Pretty unlikely and unreasonable, I know… but we’re imagining the absurd here. Stick with me. Now let’s agree that Innovation Stadium added 5 more female restrooms and 5 male restrooms. The grand totals are still unbalanced at 10 female restrooms and 25 male restrooms. And yet Innovation Stadium can claim “We’ve added 100% more female restroom facilities and 25% more male facilities.” Sound familiar? Not saying that’s what happened, but sometimes you pick the numbers you want to market.
What sounds better? 5 more female restrooms or 100% more?
Recently, TechCrunch posted about the math behind startup valuations. This is an amazing article, especially for a mathy like me. And I have no doubt that these calculations are reliable within certain parameters. I want to point out my one concern. The article says that without enough customers, a startup has to use estimations. Believe me, I get it. You have to estimate sometimes, especially in a new business. However, if any startup bragged about data calculated from estimates, then they too have been wooed by vanity metrics.
It reminds me about how quark-sized some baseball statistics have become. Almost to the point where a batter can walk to the plate while the announcer tells you his batting average in the month of August, with runners in scoring position, against pitchers with a weekend birthday this year, when they’ve gotten a call from their mom before the game.
In innovation, we don’t have the kind of time baseball has. They have a 162-game season to see their statistics play out. In innovation, you’re lucky if you have a couple weeks. Build, test, measure, learn… sprint, sprint, sprint. So how do we avoid vanity metrics?
Establish what hypothesis you are testing, before you test.
Identify what metric, or metrics, would absolutely validate your hypothesis.
Now you can test your prototype.
Collect, reflect, observe, and analyze.
Be ok with failing forward.
By setting the hypothesis and success metrics before you test will prevent you from latching on to bright spots. Also, by being alright with failing (as long as you are failing forward) then you feel less pressure for each test to be successful or be validated. It is a tough practice, because you’d like your idea to be a winner, but this is all part of the process in finding the right solution. Remember, you’re refining an idea that will work, not just pushing your favorite to the finish line. So be modest, avoid the vanity metrics, and keep it all actionable.
So here’s something pretty applicable. Early today, another good friend of mine, Adrienne Campbell, and I had a great conversation about this post. I am lucky to have many good friends who:
are deep thinkers
challenge me and make me think deeper
We were talking about vanity metrics and if there really was a good use for them. Maybe they don’t need to be avoided at all costs. Perhaps they could provide some value.
Take a look at this example.
A vanity metric for blogs would be the number of views. This is a great statistic if you are looking for overall exposure and reach. “Should we promote on Blog X? How many views do they get?” A great actionable metric would be “How many excellent conversations came out of a post?” (that’s one from today!) or “When I write about Subject A, how many views do I get compared to when I write about Subject B?” I get more views in WordPress when I write about writing. I get more retweets when I write about innovation processes. This is data I can act on.
Something Adrienne brought up was (and I’m paraphrasing) “Different metrics are appropriate depending on the purpose.”
Want to know if your prototype is working? You need to locate actionable metrics to test.
Want to promote your solution to an outsider? There may be some vanity metrics that get the conversation going.
It brings it all back to the stadium restroom example. They probably justified the construction based on actionable metrics such as length of wait and restrooms per person, but they promoted vanity metrics by promoting the percentage increase.
That means both can be a welcome tool in your innovative tool box. You just have to know when to use which one. ~GFandBA
When I was a young mathematics apprentice, learning at the feet of some true numerical wizards, I feared the scarlet letter F would be burned into my forehead like many before me. F for Failure. My grades were good, my test scores were solid, and I picked up topics quickly. Yet I clung to my homework, afraid to turn it in. I would make up excuses like “I forgot it” or “I misplaced it” but the truth was I feared failure.
Chances are, many of you were like me. It may not have been math, but there was some Zone of Fear that dampened your growth in some area. I was bold and not afraid in other areas of my life, but math had my number. (See what I did there?) What I should have done was apply what I learned from my dad on the football field, and applied it to math class. He taught me to “Try your best, you will be glad you did.”
Somewhere in our brains, we don’t ever want to be proven wrong. We balk and drag our feet when new, daring opportunities arise. We would like things to be nice and manageable so that we can be successful. Dr. Carol Dweck wrote an amazing book on this called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She identifies this behavior as the Fixed Mindset. Failure means I’m not good enough, that I am dumb and out of my league. Dr. Dweck goes on to explain the Growth Mindset as one that feeds off the challenge, isn’t afraid of failure because that’s when the most learning and growth happens.
“The secret to being wrong isn’t to avoid being wrong! The secret is being willing to be wrong. The secret is realizing that wrong isn’t fatal.” – Seth Godin, Linchpin
The Growth Mindset philosophy blends nicely with strong trends in the startup culture. In startups, and really all innovation, we are supposed to develop quick, minimally viable prototypes to test. You put your innovative hypothesis out there and see if it fails. In fact, I’ve come to love the failures with prototypes more that the successes. Failures give you so much insight into what is and isn’t working, while successes only cast doubt that your idea isn’t innovative enough.
“This is one of the most important lessons of the scientific method: if you cannot fail, you cannot learn.” Eric Reis, The Lean Startup
Losing your fear of failure will feel awkward initially. That first time you tell yourself “Self, it’s ok that I failed because if I don’t know something, it is a chance to learn.” After a short while though, it starts to become second nature. You will start pushing your innovations further. You will beg and plead with the startup muses for a good failure. Not only will you gain valuable learning and find the proverbial “10,000 ways it doesn’t work”, you will also be able to feed those failures to your furnace.
“But I keep cruising. Can’t stop, won’t stop moving. It’s like I got this music, in my mind saying, ‘It’s gonna be alright.'” Taylor Swift, Shake It Off
I was able to overcome my fear of failure in math, and in my innovation work I embrace failure as an old, wise friend. So today is the day that you too start eating failure for breakfast. Shift your brain into a Growth Mindset high gear. Because even if you fail to lose your fear of failure today, you’ll learn a better way to try again tomorrow. Now go forth and be awesome!
When was a time that fear of failure stopped you from going forth?
Last time you failed, what did you learn?
How can those lessons help you find a better way for the next iteration?