Every entry filed under "Innovating"

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Out and Push

Vintage Car

Leaders spend a lot of time in the driving seat.

Even when you’re in great shape — with maps studied, routes chosen and provisions packed — the demands of just making progress throw up an endless stream of forks in the road and decisions to take.

The best place to be? Behind the wheel, correcting the course and carrying on.

And what works for you works for project teams too.

Each project comes with its very own driving seat, and anyone big enough to sit there deserves your support. Most of the time that means keeping out of their way.

Get Out and Push

But what do you do if a key project comes to a juddering halt?

A bit of coaching can go a long way, but when a good team digs itself axle-deep in stuckness, you might have to get out and push!

That’s not a euphemism for taking over.

Putting your full weight behind a project doesn’t have to mean jumping in with size twelve boots. Far better to volunteer your strength, put your back into the job, and give them the boost of motivation that comes from attention.

When I say volunteer, I mean exactly that. Tell the team how important they are to the project and how important the project is to you, then simply offer your services as an additional resource to get things moving again, “What can I do to help?”

If they ask you to get on a plane. Pack your bag. If they need funding. Find some. Political shenanigans? Pour oil.

The Universal Adjuster is Baby Steps

The trick is to show your commitment and get the cogs turning without taking over, undermining anyone or knocking good people out of the way. Nobody wins if you do everything yourself.

The universal adjuster for stuck teams isn’t a hammer, nor is it deep analysis and grand schemes. The answer is baby steps. Little actions that make small but discernible progress. Almost anything you do will rock the wheels, and if you string a few actions together, things will start rolling.

Neatly filed under Innovating,Leading on November 25, 2010

What would you change?

Great Big Spanner B/W

This morning, as I came home from the pool a mother and toddler walked up my street. As I folded my bike and fumbled with my keys the pair stopped outside my gate and I overheard the mother ask, “What would you like for your birthday, if you could have anything?”

Her little boy didn’t have to think, and I didn’t have to “overhear” the answer; the whole street is in on the secret.

I’ll come back to his answer in a minute, but for now, this question reminds me of the “King for a Day” question, variations of which often pop up in strategy offsites, particularly for early stage projects.

I was introduced to this idea by a grey haired old managing partner type facilitating a meeting with our team when we couldn’t agree anything about our new product initiative. Coming back from a break, he changed the tack of the meeting by asking each of these questions in turn, making us write down our answers privately before a group discussion at the end.

What would you change?

  1. Imagine you’re about to meet a clairvoyant who can actually see the future. You have one question – what do you ask?
  2. It is now five years in the future. The project has been fantastically successful. You’re about to be interviewed by a journalist about what you did to make the success. What three things will you tell the journalist made the most difference?
  3. Same scenario except the project went badly. Now what do you say?
  4. What are the first three actions you will take out of this session?
  5. And finally the King for a Day question. You have the power to make any change to the “system” (usually political, market, sociological or technological) that you like. What would you change to make the project more successful?

The whole session — private writing and open discussion — ran a couple of hours, but by the end we’d moved forward, driven issues on to the table, and had a half decent action plan for what to do next.

The King for a Day question itself can seem a bit facile. “If I were King for a day I’d make a law that every customer in our target market has to buy our product,” for example, isn’t very helpful. Or is it? Answers like this may point to a member of the team who isn’t convinced about the product or marketing (which is a big deal in a small team), or they could be highlighting a weakness in the regulatory framework that effectively excludes start-ups so there’s a risk the new product won’t have a fair chance with tenders in its chosen market (which is a very big deal in any team), or something else entirely. Who knows until you bring it into the open?

I’ve used versions of the questions many times since, and king-for-a-day often provides the liveliest and most productive debate. Time spent exposing issues and deciding actions is always good time in my book.

I’m sure the mother on my street wasn’t interested in the strategic concerns of a nebulous product team, but her question served the same “exposing and deciding” purpose as king-for-a-day; cutting to the chase, what’s next?

The prince in my street hollered his answer, “I WANT A GREAT BIG SPANNER.”

Four years old maybe, but this little fella has things to do, and he knows what he needs to get it done.

What about you?

Neatly filed under Innovating,Managing on October 7, 2009

What do all those people do?

office 2000

Image copyright: Corscri-Daje tutti! via Flickr

Inside any kind of organisation bigger than the land of Me & My Mate, you’re probably surrounded by people who do a job that’s completely different to yours.

What do all those people do?

I’ve been thinking about the doing part of that question lately, rather than the people part. The way I see it, no matter what the job title or department, the doing falls in to one of only five categories:

Making Promises – easiest to think of as all the things that happen in sales or marketing, some customer services and board functions. Anything that makes any kind of commitment on behalf of the company is a making promises action.

Keeping Promises – everything that even vaguely fits into operations: all the tasks that make the product, perform the service, look after customers, pick up, package or deliver the thing.

Measure and control – all the things involving numbers or making sure nothing gets out of hand.

Support – what gets done in order to make everything else function; what normally happens under the headings of IT or HR for instance.

Leadership and innovation – without getting bogged down in book style definitions, leadership is about direction setting and steering to the compass whilst innovation is all the processes that aim to improve things.

These are not departments, they’re functions, and whilst every person spends most of their time in one kind of role, they probably undertake processes in others, if not all. For example, a production worker is mainly employed to keep promises, but they probably also try to innovate to improve things, keep an eye on production rates and quality, put their arm around colleagues when they need it, and continually make commitments within and for their department.

Ok. So what? Is this anything other than yet another way of thinking about organisational structure?

If every process is about making, keeping, ensuring and supporting promises, or improving the way the whole thing gets done, then every job is about the customer.

So what do all those people do? Let’s hope they’re not wasting any time discussing, deciding or doing anything that doesn’t draw a straight line to improving the life of the customer.

Neatly filed under Innovating,Keeping Promises,Leading,Making Promises,Managing on June 3, 2009

Get out of the building

Keyhole Door 3

Image copyright: The Gut via Flickr

In the beginning there are no data points. Everything is a guess.

The problem, the customer, the idea, the product, the market, the technology, the structure, the people, the everything.

Most attention falls on the product

Anyone with a bias for action can find it extremely tempting to focus on all the things that have to be done, especially building the product. The “we have to have something to sell” people who put their heads down and build. But how many products get to market only to find there is no market. In a large company, this is probably where people start to blame Marketing. In a small company, this is probably where people start to find new employers.

More attention should fall on the customer

Too many product teams focus solely on the product and forget the customer. And you can never forget the customer. In start-up mode, customers aren’t a source of cash, they’re a source of clarity. Ask them for help, and by the time you get to market you’ll have turned almost all your guesses into data points – ignore them, and you’ll turn up with a shiny new toy but no real idea whether anyone wants it or how to sell it.

Find out about customers

Assuming for a moment that you believe learning about customers is a good idea, and that you intend to really open up your ears, how do you do it and what are you looking for?

1. Get out of the building - Inside, all is mystery, assumption and guesswork. Outside, it’s a bit foggy but hunt around with any kind of determination and you should come across some hard edges. If you don’t find any, your vision is likely to be more dream than reality – the earlier you find that out, the better. Where you do find edges, sharpen your focus.

2. Ask questions – Talk to people, especially potential customers. Get as much data as possible. Act like a funnel, don’t filter, bring everything in. I’ve found that the most productive and insightful conversations are those based on an honest description of the situation, something like, “we’re part way through developing a product and we need some help. We’re trying to learn about …” Here are some of the questions I like to answer:

Who are they? What do they do? What’s their agenda? What is their pain? Where do they gather? How many of them are there? Who influences them? How can I reach them? How do they buy? How often? What’s the decision making process? How do they talk? What do they want? Why now?

3. Fill out the data points - punch through the black-out until you see a clear picture of the product AND the customer. When you see patterns emerge, shift course if you have to.

Nothing about this means you have to do everything customers say. Develop your own compass, don’t swing left then right then left again based on the who-I-spoke-to-last or he-who-shouts-loudest principles. “No” is not a dirty word. Listen to everything about customers you can, then make up your own mind.

This isn’t the same as making up your own mind first then listening until someone, anyone, tells you what you want to hear (the unwritten brief of much market research). We all suffer from confirmation bias, (the propensity to notice things that confirm what we already believe and ignore or discount anything that doesn’t), but I’ve found that being aware, and sometimes naming them out loud in a group can put both bias for action and confirmation bias where they belong; along side all the other risks being managed.

In the beginning there are no data points. Everything is a guess.

However clear your vision, however smart your idea, don’t rely on guesses.

Neatly filed under Innovating on May 29, 2009

Presenting an alternative

A little bit of presentational magic goes a long way, as Hans Rosling’s TED presentation shows.

I came across Prezi this week who offer an interesting take on delivering screen content. Promising stunning presentations is a pretty bold claim. We’ll see.

Chapeau to the interesting Explainist blog for pointing Prezi out.

Neatly filed under Innovating on April 16, 2009