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.
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 →
You ever have one of those ideas that floats around, just kind of dancing in your brain, eager to be released? You can coax the idea to calm down for a little while by saying “Ok, I’ll let you out, but I have to have this one thing in order first. I want you to be a success!” And so your idea calmly sits while you prepare. It’s not long afterwards that your idea gets anxious again, and you have to encourage it to calm down once more. And this cycle repeats. Why?
I’ll tell you why. We have this fear that if everything is not just right, our idea is going to fall flat on its face. We lose too much while waiting for the “right time”. However, by waiting we’re only building more anxiety that our idea must be perfect when it is released. We need to spend less time with our ideas “on the ground” and get more of our ideas soaring “in the air”.
In 1966, a shoe store opened in Anaheim, California. They saw 16 people walk in the store that first day and 12 of them made a purchase, and yet the shoe store didn’t have a single shoe in the store. They had samples of the different styles, but nothing the customers could leave with right then. Instead, the customer placed an order, the store would get to work making the shoes, and the customer could pick them up later that day.
The store only operated like this for the first couple days, but the owners simply couldn’t wait to open. The doors were flung open as soon as the store could be open, there wasn’t time to wait on actually having shoes. In fact, the shoe samples didn’t even have names. They were just design numbers like #44 or #20.
You see, Paul Van Doren, James Van Doren, Gordon Lee, and Serge D’Elia didn’t want to wait until everything was perfect. They wanted to get their idea out there so it could breathe and run and live.
If we twist the story just a little, we begin to see the brilliance. We’ve already seen what happens if they open early and succeed, but there are three other parallel universes out there.
Parallel Universe #1: They open early and fail. No harm, no foul. They don’t have a surplus of shoes that they need to unload or wear for the rest of their lives. Not as bad an outcome as bad outcomes go.
Parallel Universe #2: They wait until they craft all their shoes and succeed. This is a boring story because there is nothing surprising about it. Nobody took a chance. This is like following the on-box directions for macaroni and cheese. No one is surprised when it comes out as macaroni and cheese. This is routine and nothing of note can be gained here. Move along.
Parallel Universe #3: They wait until they craft all their shoes and fail. This is the evil timeline. They lose a ton in this version of the story. Money, time, materials. Think of all the extra shoes that they can’t sell! In this universe, all their cousins and nieces and nephews are cautious around birthdays. “Uncle Paul is coming? He’s probably going to give me another pair of those shoes again.”
By opening the doors early, they ran the best chances at success. And this will please all you managers out there, by opening early they mitigated the most risk. They had an opportunity to validate their ideas before spending resources to make the idea perfect.
That’s what we’ve got to do as innovators. We may have an idea that we’re sure will flip the market on its ear and make the world a better place to live in. But the longer it is just an idea, the more time the market has to catch up or diverge. There is nothing worse than spending years on an innovation to launch it and have the market say “This solution exists already” or “We don’t need this solution anymore because the problem has changed.”
If you need further convincing about opening your “idea doors” early, you don’t even have to leave Anaheim. Just travel back in time from Vans in 1966, to Disneyland in 1955.
As the gates opened for the first time on July 17th, Disneyland faced these problems and more:
some trees had just been planted
some of the paint was still wet
counterfeit tickets doubled the number of guests expected
water fountains didn’t work because a plumber strike meant only the bathrooms would be functional
the asphalt on Main Street had only been poured the night before
The myriad of challenges Walt and his team faced on Day One were used as a learning opportunity. A chance to figure out what wasn’t working. Shouldn’t we afford our ideas the same chance? The same opportunity to learn and grow from the challenges? We’re supposed to be embracing failure, so let your ideas out into the sun!
I’ll close with the words of the immortal bard, Shia LaBeouf. “Don’t let your dreams be dreams. Yesterday you said tomorrow so just do it. Make your dreams come true.”
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?
I think we can all agree that Disney Pixar’s newest film, Inside Out, doesn’t merely tug at your heartstrings. Rather it grabs hold with a death grip and shakes them with a vigor that would make the Grinch weep, even prior to his heart enlargement. If you’ve not seen it yet, prepare your “It’s dusty in here” and “I got something in my eye” crying cover stories and go.
As you shed tears for Bing Bong (and you will) think of one simple fact… At one point, this story sucked.
One key takeaway here is that we, as innovators, must start our creative idea somewhere, tell the story, and figure out how to get it “from suck to not-suck”. In fact, the faster we do this, the better. We don’t want to spend needless hours putting all kinds of sheen, gloss, and functionality into that first prototype because we will likely fail and need to pivot. That is why we need to prototype on paper.
I’ve prototyped a few games just as a means to get an idea down, get it moderately functional, and to give the game idea some quick playtesting. I do not want to spend time or money in making beautiful, final quality game pieces because there are still many aspects that will need developing, balancing, or discarding. In order to prototype quickly, I keep a large stack of 3 by 5 notecards nearby (along with shiny glass beads, sparkly sticker books, and a plethora of dice). These become my makeshift game pieces. The best part is, they aren’t limited to prototyping games. A notecard could represent an app’s splash screen, an email template, or whatever you are innovating. There is always a way.
One quick note: Paper prototyping is a method, a way of making your ideas tangible in a quick, low-cost manner so that your innovative hypothesis can be validated. It does not HAVE to be paper, but whatever material you use should have the same inexpensive and recyclable nature.
Let’s take a look at some reasons why you should prototype of paper early, and often.
YOU CAN PROTOTYPE CHEAP
Notecards can be bought for several on the dollar. This definitely beats the time and effort that would go into developing a digital or physical first version of your innovation. Imagine spending resources to have a first iteration of your innovation built, only to put it in front of some customers and find out that your solution needs some big time overhauling. Instead, if you had paper prototyped that primary version, you might be out a couple dollars. That’s a pretty decent Return on Investment for all the learning you can do with a first prototype.
YOU CAN PROTOTYPE FAST
There you are, sitting with a target customer, showing them your idea. You watch them interact with your prototype and you notice a huge flaw that needs to be addressed. If you’ve built a more elaborate prototype, this pivot can be costly and put a huge delay in your deliverable timelines. All those items in your kanban or development pipeline now have to sit and wait for this first one to be addressed. If you prototyped on paper (and remembered to bring notecards and pencils to your focus group) you can mock up the new screen or feature within seconds! Remember that you are just telling your innovation’s story so these don’t have to be marketable graphics. They just need to be enough for the customer to see how it works and for you to watch them “interact”. Plus this reduces your iteration time to something very minimal.
YOU CAN BE DARING
When you aren’t worried about cost of developing a prototype, and you aren’t worried about the time it takes to pivot and persevere into iteration two and beyond, then you can be as adventurous with your prototype as you want to be. You aren’t risking a ton of resources so put those ugly ideas out there! Be disruptive, do things the way no one in your industry does them. If your “out-there” idea crashes and burns, all you are out is a handful of notecards.
YOU CAN PUT THE FLOW IN THE CUSTOMER’S HANDS SOONER
The best time to learn about your solution’s fit with your customers is when they are holding it in their hands. When your prototype only lives internally, it will always appear perfect. You need to kick it out of the nest and see if your idea can fly on its own. The faster you can do this, the less time you spend on bad ideas. Even if you don’t have it all figured out yet, get your core mechanics on paper and start asking your customers to look at it. It opens up new idea avenues for you to explore and it helps paint a better picture of what jobs the customer needs your innovation to do. We can all work on understanding our customer better, because they are always changing. Opportunities to learn and grow are valuable, especially when your innovation is in the very formative stages of its lifespan.
Later, we’ll go into some methods on “how” to prototype with paper… but for now, grab your notecards and start iterating!
For this challenge, you will need 10 notecards.
Take 6 notecards and prototype the flow your customer will experience with your prototype.
Show it to someone and have them “pretend” its the real deal.
Iterate right then and there on any pain points they experience. Use your remaining 4 notecards for any additional or replacement steps in the flow.
Identify places you need to pivot and persevere and use more notecards to craft the next version!
What materials do you use to prototype with? I’d love to see what is in your bag of tricks down in the comment section.
On a foggy night, he started his run 95 minutes behind schedule. He was determined to never arrive late vowing to “get there at the advertised time”. Illinois Central’s engineer had the tough task of making up over an hour and a half between Memphis and Canton. The engineer’s name was Jonathan Jones, but he went by Casey.
Casey Jones’s heroic tales were reimagined in the 1950 Walt Disney Studios animated short, The Brave Engineer. In the cartoon, Casey Jones at one point jumps onto the front of the train to save a woman from the tracks. This was based on a true story where real-life Casey rescued a child in the same manner. Perched precariously on the cow catcher, his outstretched arms would scoop up the child who was frozen in fear on the tracks. Another exploit of animated Casey shows him ripping every part of his train down, from the cab to the caboose, and throwing it into the furnace of the locomotive… all in an effort to arrive on time.
We all have our own furnace inside of us. It powers our drive and brings our motivation to a boil. We do not have the convenience of a coal car that carries our fuel with us and Casey Jones had to tear down his own baggage car to get more out of his furnace. What can we do?
At the center of the furnace is a fire and fires in their own right are pretty great. You can build a camp fire and it will bring you warmth and light. If your fire is strong enough, others can gather around your fire. Go check out FAKEGRIMLOCK’s post about being on fire at FeldThoughts. The article is old by internet standards, but so is fire.
It boils down to this. You take the successes that you have and you take the failures that you have, and you use them as fuel. They help your fire burn stronger and brighter. But a fire on its own can burn low or the spark can go out. That’s why you can’t just feed it successes. Your fire has to burn off of the failures too. Especially in innovation where you will fail many more times than you will succeed.
Use failures as learning and fuel.
I don’t want my fire to just be sending energy out into the dark night. I want to use those Joules (unit of measurement for energy.. thanks Physics!) to make myself, my prototype, my blog, my quilting club better.
A furnace puts your fire to work.
Envision a furnace door mounted on your stomach. When you pull the door open, your internal fire can be seen. This is where you are going to toss in the successes and failures of your work. As a side note, I’m not saying to ball up your failures deep inside so that no one can see them. Hardly. I’m saying let those failures burn in your internal fire so that you have more Joules and you burn brighter. Then every one can say “Wow! You sure are glowing today!” to which you can reply “THAT’S BECAUSE I AM EMPOWERED BY THE EMBERS OF MY OWN FAILURE AND SUCCESS!” Or, you know, something to that nature.
Feed your furnace
When you feed your furnace, as Casey Jones did, you pick up steam and momentum. When your furnace is heated, your purpose starts to percolate. Purpose is one of the key components to motivation and when its is vaporizing because of the heat of your furnace, everything you do becomes more powerful. Sure you may need to pivot and persevere, here and there, as you fail and succeed with your innovations. However, neither one will be able to slow you down. You are an iron horse pulling 85 tons of ideas down the track of tomorrow. You’ve got a full head of steam and nearby towns can hear your whistle coming.
Just keep feeding the furnace.
Identify some places that you may have failed or succeeded.
How can you leverage them as fuel and keep moving forward?
Joseph Greaser and I were discussing an article the other day. Over on the Game Development site, Gamasutra, Andreas Papathanasi wrote about Unleashing the Power of Small Teams. The whole article is worth the read because there are many gems. However I am going to focus on only one gem, The T-Shaped Person. Andreas talks about how he found this analogy in the Valve Handbook.
Valve looks to hire T-Shaped people for two reasons:
1. A “T” has a deep knowledge and understanding in a skill area. Their knowledge here is so deep that they can contribute concrete ideas, solutions, deliverables within the skill area. You’re the best baker your friends have ever known? You’ve got the vertical part of a “T”.
2. A “T” has a broad range of knowledge across skill areas. They may not be masters of those areas, yet even some knowledge helps in communication, understanding of what’s possible, and often the eyes of a newbie can reveal the simplest solutions. This is the horizontal part of the “T”.
“T”s are especially useful on small teams or startups that are focused on delivering minimum viable prototypes. With their deep knowledge in one area, but broad knowledge of many areas, a “T” can construct testable prototypes easily. I may not have the development chops as some of my peers (I definitely do not), but I have enough knowledge to build prototypes that I can put in front of customers. You want to talk “minimally viable”? Have a “T” make you something from out on their horizontal branches.
Papathanasi went on to explain how the “T” exposes two other types of people. It shines light on people once thought to be “the best in the world”. We’ll call the first type “The Dash” because they consist of only the shallow horizontal part. We’ll call the second type an “I” because they have the deep skill and knowledge in one area, but don’t really understand anything outside of that. They prefer to stay within the wheelhouse. However I feel the “I” type can be broken down even further.
There are lower case “i”s that still have the deep knowledge, but sitting right on top of them is a dot. Dot = Period, Period = Stop. Holding them down is this dot that tells them to stop and go no further. Lower case “i”s have reached the point where the say “I’m good here. I can do this thing, and I’m happy with that.”
There are also capital “I”s that also have the strong vertical component, but they don’t have the dot sitting on top of them. No, they keep going up and up. These “I”s are looking to get better in their expertise area only. This can be extremely beneficial, but not on a small team. A small team needs everyone pitching in and doing jobs that they aren’t experts in to get the product shipped.
All of these types of people (“T”, “I”, “i”, and “the Dash”) have places on teams and can be extremely valuable to many organizations. Yet it is the “T” that is especially suited for a flat, small, innovative team.
Get a bunch of “T”s together and you get a platform you can build on ( TTTTT ), but if you put a bunch of “I”s together you will build a fence ( IIIII ).
So how can you become T-Shaped?
Let’s use the acronym FEEL because I had drafted my thoughts and was surprised that I could actually spell a word with the first letters. It worked out, so I’m going with it.
Fail – Yep! Fall flat on your face while trying something different. It’s ok. As Jake the Dog from Adventure Time says “Sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.” Remember when you learned to ride a bike? You undoubtedly fell then, and you will fall know. The trick is getting back on and broadening your T-Zone!
Experiment – Try stuff out. You’re not an expert so be cool with yourself just giving it a go. If you get some basic ideas down, try mixing and matching ideas. “What if I tried to make it do this?” Whether it falls apart or works flawlessly, you just leveled up in your T-Zone.
Explore – Wander into the unknown reaches of your work. If you know everything about your role, then you need to to explore into work-adjacent areas. Go beyond the edges of the map. You can either pick the brains of the other experts on your team OR you can see where your team’s skills overlap and leave gaps. This is fertile ground fro exploring because no one is currently in this region. Perhaps your prototype needs some video work done but nobody has video editing skills. Sounds like an opportunity to broaden your T-Zone.
Learn – Never stop learning. Your brain is like a muscle in that the more you give it something to workout with, it’s going to get stronger. You may not be an expert in your T-Zone… yet, but you could work up to it. Ask questions, read blogs, watch tutorial videos, you have a wealth of information at your fingertips. You found me, now I’m telling you to go find more!
Whether your small team is designing games or tea cozies, it will benefit from numerous T-Shaped people with different areas of expertise, but a culture of working outside the strengths to get prototypes validated. So fail spectacularly with your experiments in the unknown, because in those failures is where true learning lives.
I enjoy a good scary movie from time to time and zombies are everywhere. Zombies cause a load of difficult situations for folks. Imagine that you’ve just pronounced Steve* deceased, when all of a sudden, Steve sits upright and starts expressing his sudden love of brains. “My bad everyone” you might say sheepishly “I could’ve sworn he was a goner.” Then everyone rolls their eyes at you and it just gets super awkward. If only you had done a little more checking before, you might have a plan for when your “deceased” diagnosis failed.
Whether it is zombies or innovation prototyping, you need to do a pre-mortem.
The whole point of building prototypes and testing them with customers, is to see if you solution succeeds or fails. Yet we often wait to get our “failure folder” before we start thinking of why it went wrong and where the pivot opportunities are. There is no need to wait to make decisions when you conduct a pre-mortem.
Pre-mortems occur after your prototype is ready for testing, but before you do any actual testing. They allow you to take a glance at your work from a different angle. To this point, you’ve spent your brain power finding ways to get the prototype to work, how to demonstrate your hypothesis, and how to collect the data points you know are important. A pre-mortem let’s you stop those thoughts, and think “How can this prototype fail during the test and what am I going to do after it does?”
Pre-mortems focus your thoughts of failure to a single test of your prototype, not your end product. By keeping the scope of your vision on just one test, it is way less scary to envision the many ways it can fail.
A simple pre-mortem can be done by yourself as long as your prototype is in its testable state. However, it is very beneficial to have other people look at your prototype during the pre-mortem. These people are not your testers and they may not even be your target customer. Your pre-mortem pals are chosen because they have candor (which means that if it stinks, they’ll tell you… to your face… with no hesitation.) This group isn’t hyper-critical necessarily. They want to see you succeed, so they won’t inflate your hope with false niceties to avoid hurting your feelings.
If a person will tell you that your shirt is ugly, sign them up for your pre-mortem crew.
Executing a pre-mortem can be an informal process, however it is possible to ruin the validity of the pre-mortem. Be cautious to not “lead your witness” by building a worldview where your prototype is the only solution. You are best off not even telling them what your solution is or how it works. It is natural for us to go into pitch mode when we have someone looking at our prototype, but you wont be at the point of sale for your product every time. They will have to use your product by themselves, and “get it”.
Pre-mortems allow you to test your prototype, without any guiding, to see if it stands up on its own. A pre-mortem is like the first few shaky steps of a gangly giraffe; it looks like it will topple at any moment and you want to run over and prop it up, but you shouldn’t interfere if you want it to be running across the savannah someday.
To avoid the “let me just show you how this amazing product works” scenario, I’ve crafted a guide for you. This guide can be used whether you are “pre-morteming” by yourself, or with your group (the ones who are ok saying they don’t like your haircut).
Refer to your customer profile so that you or your group can get in the customer’s mindset. Make sure to explain the pain points you identified for the primary persona.
Let your pre-mortem pals interact with your prototype while you sit silently.
Observe and document how they interact.
If you are doing this step virtually, have them write down or say everything that comes to mind including “Ok now I am clicking this button because it looks like it needs to be clicked… and now I am going to do this other thing”.
Pretend to be in the future and your prototype has just failed in its most recent test.
NO REASON FOR FAILURE IS TO BE GIVEN YET.
Have everyone participating in the pre-mortem write down how your prototype failed. Aim for lists with multiple failure options.
Share and evaluate the responses. If you are doing this in a group, one person may see the prototype failing one way, and that may spark discussion on other ways no one had thought of.
I will warn you that this is a tough conversation to be a part of. However, you must encourage the dialogue. “This is great! Tell me more about how my prototype will fall on it’s face during the test!”
Take your list of possible failures and start thinking of ways you can pivot.
Take no action now, unless a failure is eminent and will ruin the test. If that’s the case, you have to fix that! Otherwise, the list of failures is not guaranteed. Keep in mind that your pre-mortem pals may not be representative of your testing group.
If you are pre-morteming by yourself, you can skip steps 2 and 3. You should probably also skip any of the open discussion parts unless you want to talk to yourself out loud. And that’s totally fine if you do.
I enjoy pre-mortems. They teach you in so many ways. They serve as mini tests before your real test. They open up your eyes so that you can see your prototype from the customer’s point of view. They help you identify ways your prototype will stumble during the test. They let you plan pivots ahead of time, that you can act on later if your prototype does actually fail. I don’t dread testing prototypes because I know if it fails, I have a plan or two ready to go.
I challenge you to be vulnerable and find some folks who will look at your prototype with a critical eye. Plan for failure now instead of later.
*You may or may not know a Steve but I assure you that the names have been made up and any likeness to someone you know is purely coincidental.