Being Awesome, Going Forth, Innovation Mindsets, Lean, Learning, Like a Startup, Motivation, Theme Park of You

You Might Be An Uncontrolled Optimist If…

optimism (1)In Episode 20 of Gimlet Media’s podcast, StartUp, Lisa Chow investigates what happens when a lean, “let’s all try to do new things” startup shifts into the established, “wait we have an HR department now?” organization. It’s a brilliant take on the need for process and the translation of vision from one strategy to the next. Episode 20, “Disorg Chart”, opened my eyes… but not for the reason intended.

I tend to be a positive person, but listening to Alex Blumberg (cofounder of Gimlet media) contemplate the negative affect of his own positivity, with help from cohost Lisa Chow, was like the opening of Pandora’s box for me. You know, if opening Pandora’s Box was a good thing and only new insights and thoughts flowed out, not the gross evils of the world. So maybe bizarro Pandora’s Box.

“Optimism is inevitably the last hope of the defeated.” – Albert Metzler

Wait, innovation and startups thrive on the whole “We’re not afraid to fail” and “Let’s try something completely disruptive.” Well, unfortunately that same optimism can hurt when a prototype fails or the market dislikes your idea. Uncontrolled optimism urges you to push forward, past the failures.

You have the data and feedback in your hands that tells you moving forward is wrong. Yet the can-do mantra of steamrolling optimism is very luring, it’s just that sometimes it lures towards the rocks like a siren song.

“I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.” – Walt Disney

One of the best lines from Disorg Chart was that a leader needs to protect employees from their worst selves. More than that, they need to provide opportunities to grow into their best selves. The same holds true for ideas, prototypes, minimum viable products, launched products, et al.

You still need a healthy dose of optimism to survive in the entrepreneur/intrapreneur world. Sometimes the only one believing that you can, is you.

The first step to undisciplined optimism recovery is identifying that you have a problem; which is really hard for the eternal optimist.
Here are some starting scenarios:
  • You might be an uncontrolled optimist if you have to ignore hard data to move an idea forward.
  • You might be an uncontrolled optimist if you avoid the difficult conversations with people who flirt with their worst selves.
  • You might be an uncontrolled optimist if you constantly sacrifice your own values and strengths just to smooth things over.
  • You might be an uncontrolled optimist if you have analyzed the results of a prototype test and blamed failure on the testers because they just didn’t get it.
  • You might be an uncontrolled optimist if you read this post, questioned your own bright-like-an-iPhone-at-night optimism for a brief second, and then said “Nah, I’m sure my optimism doesn’t need evaluating.”
    • If this is you, please embrace your kaizen. Every process (even internal ones) are up for constant improvement.

In all things, moderation is a major key. Optimism has it’s benefits, but don’t let your drive to be optimistic prevent you from charting a better course. If you are charging up a hill and all the signs point to it being the wrong hill, there is no shame in a rapid retreat to charge up the right hill.

The only shame is in pressing on when you know deep down that you shouldn’t.

 

Advertisements
Being Awesome, Diffusion of Innovation, Ideation, Innovation, Innovation Mindsets, Lean, Like a Startup

Your Turn Signal is on… Still

indecisionI’m in the middle lane of a three lane road, on the last leg of my school drop-off delivery. Just one of my kids left to go. A car in front of me has their right turn signal on. Flashing their intention to the world adjacent and slightly behind them. They kept going straight; no merging, no lane changing.

The car immediately next to them was unaware of their directional desires and held their ground. The car in front of me never sped up nor slowed down. Never made any other display of their intention. They just kept their speed, blinker blinking, until at the very last moment they slammed on their brakes in order to slide behind the next-door car and into the lane they wanted.

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lao Tzu

Too often companies use their turn signal towards innovation, yet never adjust their business plans to make it happen. “We want to be innovative industry leaders in X” is heard in more boardrooms than not. But their SUV of a company moves on unfaltering, in the lane they’ve always been in, while still signaling. It’s all about walking the talk.

In order to be innovative, there has to be some change in your current velocity. Physics tells us that acceleration is a change in an object’s speed OR direction. It would make sense that in order to accelerate towards market-leading ideas, an organization (or individual) would have to speed up, slow down, or start fading into the new lane.

  • Speed up the generation, prototyping, and validation of disruptive ideas.
  • Slow down the status quo and start preparing for some change management.
  • Merge into new procedures, culture, and atmospheres.

“Remember: It’s not innovation until it gets built.” Garry Tan

The business superhighway is littered with cars that never managed the merge to innovation. Blockbuster watched Netflix fly by in the fast lane. Xerox had the ability to change lanes thanks to PARC, but never made the move. Borders tried to let Amazon signal the lane change for them, but still kept their steady trajectory.

And as the driver ahead of me was able to finally get in the lane they needed, it wasn’t without last minute, emergency maneuvers. Often, even those are unsuccessful. Because change and innovation aren’t just things you can say you want to do. It takes commitment and dedication, adjustment and planning. You can’t just signal that you’re going to turn and magically end up in the correct lane.

You’ve got to find a space and turn the wheel.

Being Awesome, Brainstorming, Ideation, Innovation, Innovation Mindsets, Lenses

The Lenses of Awesome

When I back out of my drive, there is this one little spot that is really hard to see. You cant see it in the rearview mirror and you can’t see it in the side mirrors. The dreaded blindspot. And that, in variably, is where I’ve put my trashcans.

lens (2)In our everyday, there are hidden aspects of problems that we can’t really see. Thats why auto manufacturers added all those mirrors, cameras, and sensors. What do we do as innovators? We can’t walk through life with an array of mirrors strapped to us. No, this is when we use some lenses. Previously, we’ve talked on the surface level of lenses (see prior post) and in this one we’re going to get more into the how.

In the movie National Treasure, historian Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage), has some fancy glasses with multicolored lenses that reveal hidden clues on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Innovation lenses work in a similar way. By looking at your situation through different lenses, and different combinations of lenses, new solutions come into sight.

“Perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye.”

Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy

Lenses allow us to look at problems and solutions in a new way. They get you out of your normal brain path and into some divergent thinking. Your first instinct is to resort to your habits, your known constraints, and your know resources. Lenses stop you in your tracks so that nothing is an automatic response. To find new solutions, you have to break your old cycles.

Lenses get you beyond the confines of you business model and into some adjacent areas. Out in the unexplored areas, the hidden coves, is where treasure awaits.

How to use a lens:

  • Boil down your problem into the very base mechanics.
    • What are the root causes of your customer’s pain?
    • What very base jobs are they trying to do?
  • Apply a lens to your base mechanics.
    • How would McDonald’s address these customer pains?
    • How could the customer accomplish the jobs they need if the constraint was a positive instead of a negative?
  • Translate a lensed solution to your industry.
    • Now that you have a divergent base, build it back into your environment.
    • How could you actually pull this divergent thought off?

Previously I shared these lenses:

  • How would I never solve this problem?
  • What is the worst way I can solve this problem?

Here are a few more of my favorites:

  • How can the pain points be sold as features?
  • What would [Insert popular company] do?

What are some of your favorite lenses? Comment or tweet them! #lensesofawesome

Being Awesome, Buy In, Going Forth, Ideation, Innovation Mindsets, Lenses

Two-Faced Prototypes

prettyEveryone has heard a tale or two of people with diverse, opposite appearances. The Frog Prince and the Beast can change form with true love, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde serve as faceted personalities of the same man, and Hulk smash when Dr. Banner gets mad. While the characters’ appearances serve as moral backgrounds for allegories and folk lore, there is a lesson to be learned here for innovators.

We’ve talked before about how prototyping should focus solely on the verifiable hypothesis.  And we’re not backing down from this stance. You should be out there making the “ugly” prototypes quickly to learn and iterate with your customers. However, is there value to a “pretty” version? A benefit from a Dr. Jekyll over a prototype Mr. Hyde?

You bet there is! If there wasn’t, this would be a boring post. “Nope no benefit. Just thought I’d throw that out there. Thank you and goodnight.” The benefit comes when you need to generate some buy in. You’ll have one version for testing and one for pitching.

Just like any good salesman, marketer, or presenter will tell you, you have to know your audience. When you are prototyping, your audience is there to give you feedback on functionality. When you are trying to generate buy in, your audience is there to judge, question, and poke holes in your idea. And I mean that in all the best possible ways. You are asking for their commitment to your idea so they need to be able to feel as comfortable as they can with it. They have their own set of lenses that they view this trough. Mostly the “Am I impressed enough to lend support or resources to this?” lens.

You need a pretty and shiny version to create a wow moment.

Generating buy in means that you are asking people to jump aboard your ship after it has already set sail. If they are sitting on the dock looking at your wireframes or paper prototypes, it may be hard to convince them to jump. This past weekend I saw part of a quick and dirty boat building competition and I can say that there were a few “boats” that I would wave to safely from the dock. These were literally prototype boats that were testing out new ideas by people who had minimal skill in sailing, and only some entry-level life experience in buoyancy.

You want people to jump on your boat? You have to make your boat a more attractive place to be than the dock.

This is why you build the Dr. Jekyll version of your solution. The classy and marketable iteration. While it may be tempting to throw all kinds of features and version 5 ideas on to it, I would caution against them. Stick with your validated functions, the stuff that has been user tested, analyzed, and solidified. You are taking large risks showing features that haven’t been tested yet because you haven’t proven that the customer wants or will use them. This could lead to a difficult conversation to have with a backer who was sold because of this shiny future feature. Don’t stray from validated mechanics.

Even if you don’t have the time or the resources to get it to the minimum marketable version (the smallest group of validated features with an appropriate user experience that can be sold) a prettier-than-prototype version can serve you well. You can find ways to “Wizard of Oz” your prettier-than-prototype version that makes it feel real. It is more like a mock-up, a scale model, an artist’s representation of awesome.

So when you need to generate some buy in, know your audience and encourage them to come aboard with Dr. Jekyll’s shiny schooner. No one is jumping on a cardboard clipper with Mr. Hyde.

Being Awesome, Brainstorming, Ideation, Innovation, Innovation Mindsets, Lenses

Use New Lenses to See Past the Hammers

I mean really, what else could Geppetto have done?

He wanted and son so he looked around at the resources he had. Lathes, chisels, hammers, and wood. Geppetto leaned on his strengths to carve Pinocchio who would magically transform from wooden marionette to a real boy. You know, after he was done goofing off and finding his way.

Abraham Maslow said “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” That’s exactly what Geppetto did. He literally had hammers and built his “son” out of wood, a material he had decades of experience with but would require magical intervention to achieve his goal.

We often fall into the same trap as innovators. We apply the same thoughts to distinct and unique problems and we murmur befuddlement when our solutions look like solutions we had in the past for a different problem.

Well murmur no more! You just need more in your toolbox than hammers.

One of the best suppliers of new “tools” is the concept of lenses for brainstorming. Lenses have the ability to be an endless and infinite supply of inspiration… and you already know how to use them! The problem is that you and I default to the same lenses. Our default lenses are the place that we work, the go to inspiration we surround ourselves with. To apply new lenses, we need to think outside our comfort zone… we need to venture into problem adjacent areas.

Let’s say we’re working on solving a certain problem. To apply and adjacent lens, we need to whittle the problem down into its barebones mechanics. “Customers do this, they need it to do this, they feel this way” and so on. This is a great time to apply the five why method to get to the root mechanics. We’ll talk about that later but for now just think of it as an over-inquisitve toddler that just wont stop.

“I need to go to the store.” “Why?”

“Because we need food.” “Why?”

“Because without food we’ll go hungry.” “Why?”

You get the point. But take a look at what those three why’s did. Instead of the problem being “I need to go to the store”, the problem is boiled down to “we need food or we’ll go hungry”. That boiled down problem is more at the root and offers way more solution possibilities.

From the base mechanics of the problem, we need to venture into other solutions that exist for the base mechanic outside our given industry. You are looking for bright spot solutions outside your realm of dominance. Work in food service? Maybe you solution lies in the way health care solved a similar problem. The world is ripe with adjacent lenses. All you have to do is ask yourself “How would X solve this?” or “How did Y eliminate this problem?” Start there and start extrapolating ideas and making connections to your own industry.

Had Geppetto thought of using lenses, he might of said to himself “You know, I’d really like a son of my own. I wonder how the farmers solve the problem of wanting children?” He might not have started with a carved marionette.

And let’s face, we cant afford to wait for our solutions to magically solve the problem. We are the magic so get out there and make your awesomeness real!

EXTRA SPECIAL BONUS!!

As an added bonus, here are a couple other lenses I like to use during brainstorming.

  • How would I never solve this problem?
  • What is the worst way I can solve this problem?

Despite it being fun to think of anti-solutions, you’ll be surprised at how effective these are at finding hidden solutions!

Being Awesome, Going Forth, Innovation, Innovation Mindsets, Lean, Lenses

Charging Up the Wrong Hill

I was enjoying a morning run while listening to an excellent game design podcast, Ludology. In episode 113, Geoff Engelstein discussed the Sunk Cost Fallacy. It works like this:

You’ve played a boardgame for a little while with your friends when you realize no one is having any fun. You turn to your friends and say “Well, we’ve gone this far lads. Might as well see it to the end.” Then you proceed to spend an evening trudging through a less-than-enjoyable experience, just because you did not want to waste the time you had already sunk into it. Instead of stopping after wasting one hour on something, you decide to spend another hour on it just to finish it, essentially spending twice as much for no reward.

It seems silly here, but it happens often in innovation.

Ed Catmull uses a model of two hills in his book, Creativity, Inc.

“People need to be wrong as fast as they can. In a battle, if you’re faced with two hills and you’re unsure which one to attack, the right course of action is to hurry up and choose. If you find out it’s the wrong hill, turn around and attack the other one.” – Ed Catmull

He goes on to say that the only wrong attack, is to go between the hills. The Sunk Cost Fallacy would have your squad start attacking one hill, realize the enemy is on the other hill, but continue to charge up this hill because they already made it part of the way up. “We don’t want to waste that initial charge, sarge.”

The Sunk Cost Fallacy is the enemy to innovation. To understand how to defeat it, well use the Lean Startup principle, the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop, as a lens.

Build

This is the phase that lets you minimize your sunk cost. Keeping costs low helps you mitigate the opportunities for you to say “We’ve spent so much already on this… we should push forward.” A great way to minimize sunk cost is to prototype as minimally as possible. What are you testing? What’s the cheapest way to validate it? Maybe there is a way to build a Paper Prototype or to smokescreen your prototype? Do not splurge on additional features, functionality, or looks. You just need what is minimally viable.

Measure

Numbers never lie, but we tend to bend their truths from time to time. Set the success metrics for your prototype as early as you can. Do not budge on these numbers and be honest with yourself. If you set a goal of a 5% conversion rate, your test may be successful, but are you really reaching for where you need to go? Be wary of vanity metrics. Focus on the stuff that is going to matter.

For a great model of this, look to baseball and the rise of Sabermetrics. Some statistics are easy to calculate in baseball; like batting average or earned runs average. However, some people started to look at new statistics, ones that really highlighted the value of the player towards creating a winning team. Sabermetrics includes stats like runs created or wins above replacement. You need to find the mechanic or action that your prototype needs to accomplish now, and build a statistic tied directly to that, in its most simplistic form.

Learn

Charging up the wrong hill is ok, as long as when you realize it is the wrong hill, you don't keep charging up because that's what you've always done. Time to find the next hill.
Charging up the wrong hill is ok, as long as when you realize it is the wrong hill, you don’t keep charging up because that’s what you’ve always done. Time to find the next hill.

At this point you’ve tested your prototype, collected your success metric data, and your hypothesis has either succeeded (in which case, ignore me) or it has failed (read on, dear reader!). This is the exciting part. You’ve proven, with numbers, that you’ve charged up the wrong hill and it is time to face facts. Now you get to pivot! This might mean you need to spend more time understanding and building empathy for your customer. This might mean you need to evaluate the constraints of your test. Perhaps your solution has driven too far from the problem. There is a world of opportunity and learning at a pivot point… AS LONG AS YOU DONT KEEP CHARGING UP THE HILL!

But I mean, why would you? You kept your costs low by building a minimally functioning prototype, you set your success metrics early, and you failed/learned. This is a great moment! Celebrate as you get out your tactical map, cross the hill off with a red marker, and proclaim “Time to charge up that other hill!”

Challenge

Has there ever been a time when you charged up a hill even after you new it was the wrong hill?

How did the second half of that charge feel?

What are ways to minimize your sunk cost?

Being Awesome, Innovation, Innovation Mindsets, Like a Startup, Motivation, Team

How In-N-Out Burger Became My Innovation Anchor

What started as an impassioned plea to a team amidst a sea of chaos in a busy In-N-Out burger has become a rallying cry in the innovative process.
What started as an impassioned plea to a team amidst a sea of chaos in a busy In-N-Out burger, has become a rallying cry in the innovative process.

In the Spring of 2014, I traveled to San Francisco with some friends for a conference. I was raised on the West Coast, so any trip to California results in a required pilgrimage to In-N-Out Burger. It was a busy night at the closest In-N-Out and the dining area was packed with like-minded culinary aficionados.

We waited eagerly for our orders at the counter when you could feel the energy change. There were very loud “conversations” happening on the staff side of the counter. I couldn’t make out words but it was definitely heated from the chaos of the dinner rush. And that’s when our hero stepped in. He came from a spot in the back where he had been working the large, manual french fry cutter. He raised his eyes from the floor with the same erie calm that rolls over a seaside town before a hurricane strikes. Then we heard him proclaim, in all of our sight, a statement that’d change our mindset that night.

“We’re all… on the same… level.”

It is devious in its simplicity. This was not a time for hierarchical org charts or chains of command. Every employee there was tasked to get orders in, and then out. In and out. It was not about pulling rank or telling others how to do their job better. Get the orders in, and then get them out.

That simple statement has anchored the better part of a year and a half of innovation theory development. It has become a mantra, a safe harbor, and a compass. Here are the two best applications of “We’re all on the same level.”

1. Your team is all on the same level.

Hopefully you’ve had the opportunity to read my post on T-Shaped teammates and flat teams. If you haven’t it is located here.

Having a flat team has many benefits, specifically in the deployment of candor. Without a designated manager or leader, each person feels comfortable offering up bad ideas as well as critical feedback on other prototypes. Open dialogue helps the team move faster towards promising solutions.

A wise person once said “A good idea doesn’t know its parent.” An individual on flat team doesn’t seek credit and instead uses any success to reflect back on the team’s efforts. Another benefit is that when tasks or events arise, everyone is willing to pitch in. There may be tasks above or below the team’s station and if they are an honest-to-goodness flat team, then there will be shared coverage of those tasks.

The team functions for collective goals when they’re all on the same level.

2. The problems you try to solve are all on the same level.

There are two main schools of thought around innovation. You either start with a solution or you start with a problem. The majority of what I do starts with a problem. It requires me to research the problem and empathize with the customer, because sometimes the problem you see is not the real problem. There are problems that seem cut and dry. Slap on a salve of solution and you are good to go. Then there are problems that look dark and wrapped in a bramble of thorns. But here’s the rub. If you have an effective process for tackling problems, then all your problems are on the same level.

The simple problem does not get a watered-down, vanilla version of your process. If your process works, apply it to the small problems.

The tricky or large problem does not get additional steps or tools applied to your existing process. If your process works, apply it to the large problems.

It minimizes to this: If you are trying to solve a problem, apply your effective process in its best and truest form.

Keeping things all the same level reduces politics and favoritism, and helps promote candor and openness. And to borrow one of Walt Disney’s famous quotes… “It all started with a burger.”

Challenge

  • Are there things that you put at different levels?
  • Would rearranging them all on the same level affect your innovative process?
  • When faced with a new problem, ask yourself “How would In-N-Out solve this?”