For more than 150 years, the National Weather Service has been providing weather updates IN ALL CAPS. Even as weather forecast technology made great leaps and bounds, the National Weather Service was content in sticking with all caps. It’s due to the old limitations of how they communicated their reports. However on May 11th, the National Weather Service will be speaking more softly.
The change is accredited to “changing social norms” around how we talk to each other. Tweets of all caps are taken people talking with VERY LOUD VOICES for a wide range of emotions. I wonder if there isn’t a missed opportunity here.
Two fantastic examples of owning a unique text style are ee cummings, an American poet, and FAKE GRIMLOCK, a giant, robotic dinosaur. ee cummings was famous for using non-traditional capitalization and punctuation as its own poetic device.
“To be nobody-but-yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you somebody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” ee cummings
FAKE GRIMLOCK proudly makes large exclamations of awesomeness and getting stuff done. He does so with a very direct vocabulary and all caps.
“WHY TALK THIS WAY? BECAUSE AWESOME!” – FAKE GRIMLOCK
This is why I feel the National Weather Service is missing out on something. What if they incorporated ALL CAPS into their brand, instead of abandoning it to fit in with the crowd? They should make no apologies for their loud text. T-shirts would be emblazoned with #PARTYCLOUDY, expressing the irony of a wishy-washy weather system that bombastically declares itself. They could even say “YES. WE BROADCAST IN ALL CAPS. WEATHER IS SERIOUS BUSINESS. WE SHOULD ALL PAY ATTENTION TO THE CLIMATE.” But instead, they chose to fit in; get lost in the sea of status updates.
There is a Scottish proverb that says “You should be the king of your word” and it fits in this case as well. Take pride in the words you choose. They are a reflection of you. Don’t let your words blur the lines between you and the millions of others out there. Supercharge your words to stand out against the grain because that’s when you’ll have a #100%CHANCEOFTHUNDERSTORMS!
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.
I’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.
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!
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.”
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?”
I’ve had this really amazing opportunity to freelance and do some game writing for indie studio, Mastermind Games. Affliction is set in small town America, circa 1950. You can smell the pies cooling on the windowsills, hear the brass band playing in town square, and everyone greets you with a smile. Until all that ended. You’ll experience the town as an abandoned wasteland, uncovering the tattered history, while keeping a safe distance from the shadowy Reapers. You can either cure the town or fall victim to the many dangers that lurk inside its borders.
Writing for the game has been an absolute blast and the more I write for this game, the more I’ve realized that game writing is like running a Startup. So I leaned into that slide and started to look at startups for ways to help my writing. Let me share with you four ideas I borrow from startups and how to apply them to your writing.
Bring Loads of Ideas
Picture a suitcase. A really large suitcase. In this suitcase you can fit every shirt you’ve ever owned. But wait! Before you start cramming your sixth grade Camp Okeechobee t-shirt into the suitcase, you’re going to fill it with ideas. And like a suitcase full of every shirt you’ve ever owned, only a few will get worn. Your “idea case” should be bursting at the seems because when you begin writing, you’ll never know when you’ll need to break out a new idea.
You can practice this skill by picking something you did today, and try to think of ten different ways you could have done it. Did you text a friend today? What are ten other ways you could have communicated? Once a list of ten is easy, try to get twenty, then thirty. The benefit to this method is that the first ten ideas you have are probably the same ten ideas everyone has. By pushing your limits, you will stretch and start finding more ideas, which leads to the more creative ideas.
Prototype Early and Often
You’ll envision the narrative in a perfect state, but until you get it on paper and in front of someone else, you’ll only stunt its potential. We’ve prototyped the narrative for this project a number of times. Each time we’ve been able to look at different aspects and really get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. Each prototype allowed us to get ideas out there, kind of play test them a little mentally, and identify which pieces worked.
If we hadn’t prototyped the narrative, I would be off happily writing myself into corners that the game wouldn’t able to fix. Worse yet, my literary lost causes, my poetic pinch points, my description the doglegs into a dead-end… they could all cost the developer money and time. No one wants to delay a game because their story got stuck and they need to circle back to when it made sense. The benefit has been keeping the narrative, in whatever raw and rough state it is in, out in the open for all of us to work on.
Be Willing to Kill Off the Bad Ideas
Admitting an idea is bad is not easy at first. But remember, we were chasing sheer quantity in tip Number One. Not all of those ideas are going to be winners. Honestly, they shouldn’t be. You can’t be afraid of taking the bad ideas, crumpling up the paper they’re written on, and sky-hooking them into the nearest trashcan.
Occasionally they aren’t even bad ideas! Sometimes they just don’t fit into the scheme of the narrative anymore. You will find yourself looking at that beautifully crafted story arc with its twists and player choices, and you’ll try to shoehorn it in. Unfortunately, like Cinderella’s step-sister’s foot and the glass slipper, it just won’t fit. Remember, it’s ok to kill off these ideas because if it doesn’t fit for you, it won’t work for the player/reader.
Pivot and Persevere
This is where all three of the previous tips blend together into a delicious stew. Since you prototyped your narrative (Number Three), you will be able to identify where the gaps are. These gaps either come from bad ideas where you need to prune those story branches (Number Two) or from missing steps between one chunk to the next, in which case you can try to bridge it with a new idea (Number One). However, here is where this practice gets its own number instead of being delegated a “summary”.
When you are evaluating your prototype, you will have to consciously make the decision “Should I pivot or persevere?”
Pivoting is when you’ve come to a dark spot that has failed so poorly that it just needs to be removed, replaced, and rewritten. Maybe you get to the end of a narrative road to find out that it is a dead-end and you really should have never gone down this road in the first place. Great news! Because you prototyped first, you found this before you wrote it in stone. It is way easier to swing a u-turn and pivot back to where the story is good.
You can persevere when your prototype road is good enough to move to deeper writing. Maybe it isn’t perfect, yet, but you can feel that it can get there. WARNING! This is not something you do because you just love this idea. It honestly has to feel right in the flow of your prototype and earn the ability to persevere. There is no room for “idea nepotism”; no narrative arc gets a free pass because its the nephew of the boss.
I’ve found by incorporating these Startup mentalities to my writing, I’ve destroyed some of the biggest barriers. I no longer fear the blank page; a.k.a. the Great Void. I am bringing an “idea case” full of good, and less-than-good ideas, to start shaping the page into my vision. I also don’t fear critiques either, because I know i’ve got more ideas and I’m willing to remove any of the ones that don’t work. So get out your notebooks, there are literary startups in your brain, waiting to hit the page running.
The next time you sit down to write (your blog, a story, some game narrative, or copy for your product), fill your “idea case” with as many thoughts as you can.
Find a way to get your writing in the hands of some readers early. Even if it isn’t in a final stage. The roughness can sometimes help readers offer more honest critiques.
Protect your heart now that your favorite idea may not make the cut.
When you do find a spot that isn’t working, dig in and see if you need to pivot, or if you can persevere and improve it.