Every entry filed under "Innovating"

The power of three things


Where are you heading with your project and how are you doing? The answer to this simple question is probably complex and I imagine you keep all the pieces of the jigsaw in your head.

And that’s OK if it’s a personal project with few moving parts. But as soon as you bring someone else into the loop they need to see the picture on the box and understand how you’re doing with fitting everything together.

How do you do that?

I’ve found that most people aren’t brilliant at laying out the puzzle. And even when something looks amazing, the facade can crumble under closer scrutiny.

The power of three things

When I’m asked into loops where I have no pre-knowledge, I try to find the corners and edges of the picture using “the power of three things.” It’s like Toyoda’s famous Five Why’s exercise except instead of drilling into the why of a thing, I’m looking for an landscape.

Every project needs different questions but all of them try to go three layers deep. Here’s the kind of thing I’m talking about:

  • When thinking about this project, what three things concern you the most?
  • What three things do you think of as its strengths?
  • What three things tell you you’re on the right track?
  • What three things would tell you for sure?
  • Being honest about where you are now, what three things would you like to have completed in the next hundred days, six months, one year? (That’s a sneaky three part question).
  • In three sentences, why did you get involved in the project?
  • In three sentences, what is your role?
  • In three sentences, what are the drivers behind this project?
  • What three things would you like to get out of the meeting?

I’ve used this exercise face-to-face, by email, as a break-out, as a web-form to be completed before a meeting. I’ve used it on myself. It can be tough, it’s always brings insight.

My experience: solo is better than group exercise; written answers are deeper than spoken; time to think means better answers than time under pressure; asking the same questions of multiple team members is better than only asking one; 20% of people don’t give written answers at all.

Why three things? It works. It gets beyond the obvious and opens up the veins of free thinking. Mostly thought, it’s about setting an expectation of effort.

Time in the room

It’s always better if everyone’s looking at the same picture. The power of three things is that it gets all of the jigsaw pieces out on the table so you can maximise time in the room for the real work of any project: building clarity and cohesion, testing assumptions, and working together on next steps.

Skippy Strategy: Anytime you bring someone into your project, or join someone else’s, work out where leverage is greatest and knowledge is weakest. Put together a set of three-things questions and then do what it takes to give or get the answers.

Neatly filed under Innovating on February 27, 2015

Build a phantom


Say you invent a new x-ray machine. (No, really.) How do you test it? If you point it at a human – and these things end in human trials – it damages them. That’s what x-rays do. In an ideal world, every time you tweaked a setting, you’d point it at the same human, lying in the same position, with the same amount of air in their lungs – every variable controlled out of existence.

With something as complex as x-rays, there’d be a lot to tweak. And that’s a lot of tests and a lot of damaging x-rays. The very act of testing changes the subject, and they don’t like sitting still in the first place.

Handily, there’s an engineering answer to this deeply human problem.

An industry has evolved to build phantoms – facsimiles of human tissue that behave like the real thing but that don’t wriggle around, breath, or get damaged in a way that affects the test or bothers the … um … host.

In the world of x-rays, phantoms are substantive thinking tools.

Build a phantom

I’m not particularly risk averse but when I only have one shot and the stakes are high, I build phantoms.

As simple as role playing a key presentation – where the phantom is a candid friend – or as complex as running a manufacturing order through a new line whilst still having the time and capacity to do it the traditional way. Phantoms test thinking and stretch systems before anything gets critical. Before it counts.

In the chasm between bet-the-farm decisions that are put under the microscope, and the day-to-day don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff, there’s a place to fire x-rays at phantoms. Where a simple test will light up the sensors and show you the cracks – before you put any weight on it, and before you fall on your face.

Skippy Strategy: What are you doing or changing in the next few months that’s high stakes? Anything critical to revenue or customers or morale or regulators? How could you test it out of the spotlight? Who would help?

Neatly filed under Innovating on February 25, 2015

Why don’t you just show me?


Listening to someone discussing their ideas or what they’re working on, do you find yourself nodding vaguely, thinking, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I do.

So I say, “Why don’t you just show me?” And they do. And I get it.

New ideas can be difficult to talk about when all you have are ideas. Concepts are wonderful things but they’re just so … conceptual. It helps, hugely, to show rather than tell. “This is what I’m talking about.”

Every project has a point when it’s best to stop waving your hands in the air trying to explain things, and just write it down, build it, mock it up, create an artists impression, a storyboard. Something we can all stand around, look at, and poke.

Ugly bird

Not so much a minimum viable product, as a clunky, non-viable, held together with sealing wax and string, ugly bird, that shows the idea of an aeroplane and stops you flapping about the theory of powered flight. That shows the way you’re thinking, that can be critiqued, that can light the fires of imaginations and build momentum and excitement for the next stage.

Now, if you hear, “I don’t get it,” there’s a reason beyond communication skills and maybe it’s time to think again. Or, if you hear, “that’s what you mean? I thought you meant like this. That’s entirely different. I get it now,” maybe you’re on your way to a common cause.

The upside

There are two main benefits in making things real:

– cooking things up in the kitchen makes you understand taste and flavour. You’ll feel the flaws and the possibilities, you’ll improve and crystallise ideas. The very act of making the ugly bird will improve your sense of what’s right and wrong, what’s in and what’s out.

– momentum needs mass and direction of travel. A shared understanding of the end game makes it easier to keep forward motion.

Skippy Strategy: If you’ve been struggling to get critical mass behind an idea, cook up a minimum viable communication device in your kitchen. Avoid PowerPoint and Keynote. What can you put in their hands or make them walk around? If is has to be virtual, how can you make it visceral?

Neatly filed under Innovating on February 21, 2015

When to call domain experts


Unknown unknowns

When breaking new ground, you don’t know what you don’t know, or what you need to know, or even where you’d go to find out and what things mean when you get there. It’s possible to get into things that you don’t understand.

Say you need to store some imported alcohol for a product you’re developing, can you do that? Do you need a bonded warehouse? Which regulator looks after this stuff? What are the rules?

Domain expertise

When your team is light on domain expertise, the most important early decision you have to make is to learn it for yourselves or buy it in.

Some decisions makes themselves – do-it-yourself brain surgery anyone? – but most situations aren’t black and white; given enough time and a following wind, smart teams can work out most things on their own. When the world looks grey, how to decide?

Buy or build

The criteria:

– risk of getting it wrong – cost, reputation, litigation, regulators, cul de sacs, re-work

– complexity and the time it take’s to get it right – it looked easy at the beginning, but I once lost six months chopping about in the long grass of US regulations

– cost of paying for the short cut – cash and its opportunity cost

– something you need to learn – or something you only need once.

If it looks simple, low risk, won’t take long and will come out of your kit bag time and again, work it out amongst yourselves. If it’s on the critical path and looks risky, call an expert.

The danger of course is wading into the shallows thinking it going to be ok, then not noticing as the water gets deeper. When this happens, when you can’t make out your feet or feel the progress – like my US experience – and you’re bobbing for air by relying on favours, it’s time to cut your losses and pull in the domain knowledge you’re lacking. Forget the sunk cost, it’s gone.

Skippy Strategy: In your current plan, what are you and your team working out as you go along that would be easily solved by someone else? Could they save you months of hassle? Who would you call for help? Should you?

Neatly filed under Innovating on February 18, 2015

A spanner and a hammer?


The smart money is on making products and services that exactly meet the demands of customer problems. You design features to make customers more effective or efficient or successful. You do your best to deliver the value you think they want. Products do well if they do their job well enough to keep customers happy.

Match value

The secret is matching your value proposition to your customers’ need.

But customers have a funny old habit of using products in ways that we’ve never thought of – they’ll knock in a nail with a spanner if they don’t have a hammer on hand.

Chinese gaming platform, yy.com, added high quality audio so it’s gamers could talk to each other during online role playing. Gamers used the audio for talking, but more used it to sing karaoke. YY paid attention, added karaoke specific features, and spawned an entirely new revenue stream.

Pay attention

If you put value out into the world, customers will find a way to use it for their own ends. They’ll co-opt it, bend it, blend it – whatever it takes to do the job they want it to do.

The secret then is to match your value proposition to your customers needs and then pay attention to what happens next.

At worst you’ll find ways to make your products a slightly better fit to customer needs. But it’s possible that you’ll find the next big thing.

The odds are on your side. There are more of your customers than there are of you. Find ways to see what they’re doing and get inside their heads for an endless source of ideas. For new features, new product and new adventures.

Skippy Strategy: Call ten customers to find out exactly what they do with your product and how they use it. What’s not obvious, what’s not what it was designed for, what’s the unusual stuff? Mine for ideas.

Neatly filed under Innovating on February 17, 2015