Way before the Walt Disney Resort drew tourists to Florida like moths to a flame, they needed to buy some land. Had they waltzed over to the East Coast and declared Disney domain over central Florida, imagine what land costs would have been like. No, Walt had a plan to avoid paying “Hollywood upcharges”.
The land he wanted was soon being purchased by other companies. Little companies like Bay Lake Properties, Retlaw, The Ayefour Group, and M.T. Lott Real Estate were buying tracts of land for $80 an acre. The trick was that all these companies were Disney in disguise. Once the veil was lifted, Disney had managed to purchase more than 27,000 acres at roughly $200 per acre. Now before you start thinking Walt was out there fleecing the little land owner, understand that after people found out it was Disney buying the land, the price per acre ballooned up to $80,000.
That’s a 999% increase because they knew he could afford it.
“Ambition can creep as well as soar.” – Edmund Burke
This gets at the heart of taking little bets. Peter Sims wrote in his book, appropriately titled “Little Bets”, about comedian Chris Rock. Rock will test run jokes at a smaller venue, a laugh lab if you will, looking for the five or ten powerful lines to build an entire act around. Like Walt Disney, he’s looking for those little humor land grabs that can add up to a resort of hilarity.
We need to be doing the same thing while innovating. Ideation and business canvases can lead us to the next big things, but we can’t just build the theme park entrance out in the wild. There is some hypothesis testing and market fit analysis that should happen first. Take that big, disruptive idea and start testing those risky assumptions.
The best part is that each smallish prototype you test, only has to connect to the big, disruptive idea to you. Validating your hypotheses only has to look like another little land purchase by M.T. Lott. You’re going to be taking ground in small chunks, seemingly of little value to the market.
It is your big vision that makes the small grabs important.
“To multiply small successes is precisely to build one treasure after another. In time one becomes rich without realizing how it has come about.” – Frederick the Great
The best part of these small land grabs under little prototypes is that no one sees what you’re doing until its too late. It’s like building mini-games consisting of only one mechanic. This game you can only jump. This game you have to solve sliding puzzles. And so on until you use all your validated mini-game mechanics to build the big market disrupting game.
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!
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!
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’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.