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.

 

Being Awesome, Innovation, Team

How many C’s are there in “Innovation”?

Being part of a good innovative team is a dream. It is mutually rewarding, there are no stepped on toes or bruised egos, and everyone helps elevate each other’s ideas and projects to that “OMG wait until the world sees what were doing!” level. However, not all teams are created the same, and some are clearly created just to put sand in your sunscreen. I’ve identified four attributes that can help your innovation team reach new heights and upgrade into a traction-churning prototype machine!

Change

Making change sounds intuitive when working in innovation, but “change” is not just a product your team produces. Your team must embody change in order to stay relevant, effective, and productive. An innovative team that is set in their ways is like a brand new car in neutral; flashy and shiny now but ultimately going nowhere.

Change exists in your team procedures. There is no set template for innovation and what works today may not work tomorrow. Since variables and climates shift constantly, each problem you set out to solve needs to be evaluated for appropriate procedures for you and your team. Surveys and A/B testing of prototypes may have helped you understand your wireframes, but will those procedures help you learn about functionality?

Change exists in your team skills. Previously, we’ve talked about being T-shaped. If you are T-shaped, then your horizontal skills are where the change is going to be most noticeable. Those are the skills that possibly overlap with teammates, but are needed to fill in production gaps. Similarly, based on your proposed solutions that you need to prototype, you and your team may need to stretch beyond your skill sets into unknown territory. Sure, there are vendors out there that are experts in what you need to accomplish but they cost money. If you’re in the prototyping stage, you will need to weigh whether you can learn enough to create a testable prototype or if you need to spend the money. Either way, you should start learning about what you need, even if you chose to outsource work with a vendor. It makes communication easier if you have a basic understanding.

Candor

This can often be the hardest one for a team to develop because we want to encourage everyone. Yet not every idea, prototype, or hypothesis is a world-changing gem. Sometimes they’re just bland blobs of meh. That’s ok. You can still praise effort without agreeing with an idea. Try to level up the mediocre hypotheses and raise up your teammates. However, and I can not stress this enough, DO NOT LET THEM MOVE FORWARD WITH A STANDARD IDEA. You are doing them a disservice by not forcing them to make the idea better. You are passively undermining your whole innovation team. Likewise, you should prepare yourself for the time when your team will say your idea is “average” or worse. Candor is a two-way street. I am lucky that my team has saved me from shipping mediocre ideas. The best way you can show true respect for each other, is to demand each other’s best effort everyday.

“Life is way too short to make mediocre stuff. And almost everything that is “standard” now is viewed as mediocre.” – Seth Godin, Tribes

Credit

Innovation is lantern and unfiltered it can burn as bright as the sun. Nothing diminishes that light more than personal plans to receive recognition. In an innovative team, a team full of T-shaped dynamos, there is no room for ego and personal glory. When someone wins, it is because of the team. Just like a apple tree can not point to one rain storm as the reason it grew, your ideas are the product of the fertile soil in your brain and the collective brainstorms of your team in the past, event he unrelated ones. It is a bit cliche to say “There is no I in team” and it is quite futile because there are plenty of joke responses that defuse the power of the statement. However a team that is concerned about getting credit for individual contributions, wont contribute to the global good.

One great way to defuse this is to constantly recognize others for their contributions to your individual and team’s work. If people are constantly feeling appreciated for their efforts, then they won’t feel the need to find more recognition. It’s one of those “Do unto others” things. Plus, it’s just plain nice to do! Especially since you are working on an innovative team. Some projects you will lead and pilot. Others will find you following and pushing the project to gain momentum. And yet other projects will find you on the sidelines, cheering and consulting when you can. Team first, in every role.

Chupacabras

The Chupacabra of Innovation!
The Chupacabra of Innovation!

You need to allow the odd, the unique, the unbelievable, and the silly to integrate with your team. Hopefully your team of innovators is a group of positive deviants; bristling with energy to make a good change in the world. Chances are that the team has some ideas that are “out there”. They must be allowed to exist. Maybe an idea can be so wild that you won’t do it, but talking about it can spur the conversation down avenues you would have never considered before. One of our favorite brainstorming questions is “What would our industry NEVER do?”. We dance on the undiscovered edges of the maps, the parts where the dragons are supposed to live. We need to be the explorers of the fringe, the cultivators of the odd thoughts. That’s how we disrupt the market’s standard flow.

Challenge

  • When was the last time someone on your team said “This is how we always do it”?
  • What’s the most minimal way you can start to incorporate kaizen into your procedures?
  • A great way to start getting candor flowing is to be the first target. Put an idea out there and push your team to tear it apart. Have them find ways that it will fail. 
  • How can you incorporate a team-only view of recognition?
  • At your next brainstorming, challenge the team to come up with the worst ideas or the silliest ideas. 
Being Awesome, Innovation, Team

This Post is Brought to You by the Letter T

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:

Valve's T-Shaped Employee, found in their handbook
Valve’s T-Shaped Employee, found in their handbook

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.

T is for Team
T is for Team

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.