July 30, 2009

How to fail

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Fail Road

I came across Taylor Davidson’s How to Fail post through John Wilken’s Our Start Up Story blog. Imitating John I’m going to add my tuppence to three of Taylor’s topics: Meet to discuss, Build prototypes, mock-ups and samples, and Focus on the long-term.

Meet to discuss

I have previous on this topic, having written here on effective meetings and ten ways to ruin a perfectly good one. We’re all experts on how to ruin meetings on a practical level but one of the biggest man-hour traps of all is a meeting-as-talking-shop. As Taylor says,

If you need meetings to “get everyone on the same page” then you have bigger problems the meeting will probably not address.

So many companies have meeting cultures with managers running between days scheduled back-to-back. Almost everyone could benefit from fewer meetings. I’ve found the best way to break a meeting-as-update culture is to force managers our of their offices to perch on the edge of someone’s desk, finding out how things are going, what roadblocks they’re having to deal with, and offering support and connections. Fifteen minutes of this can save man-days of meeting time.

All of my best manager/managed relationships (in either direction) have involved this style of management-by-arse-on-desk.

Meetings, when you have them, should really only be held for one reason – to make decisions. I confess to a secret secondary objective of team-bulding. Teams get built faster when they’re active (discussion with the purpose of making a decision) rather than passive (pretending to listen to John’s update when really worrying my own update that I’m about to give or have just given).

Meetings are certainly not to stroke anyone’s ego. Don’t go to meetings just because you have an opinion, are flattered to be asked, or just to be busy. Don’t call meetings to find out about things (go sit on desks). Don’t invite people simply so they won’t be offended.

If it’s your meeting, ask who you really need in order to make the decision? Invite them. Discuss with a purpose. Make the decision. Move on.

Build prototypes, mock-ups and samples

The thinking goes like this; don’t build the whole thing, but build something that looks like the whole thing, so we can see if the whole thing (kinda) works. It seems to make sense. But as Taylor points out,

“Nothing saps the spirit more than creating mockups and designs without making progress toward a completed product. Most often the product cannot be created exactly as it is designed, and thus it is important to learn through working on the product itself, not the design.”

Having wasted far too much time and money over the years on mock-ups, I have an idealistic two stage process in mind whenever I start something.

First, boil the idea down so you can explain it with one graphic and two sentences.

Second, when everyone gets it, build the simplest version that people will appreciate enough to get a definable benefit from, and iterate.

This is the launch early, launch often philosophy – which doesn’t mean launch buggy code, or a boat that leaks, or a pacemaker that can’t stand walking past a speaker magnet. Launch a simple version that works brilliantly, and then improve it every day.

Focus on the long term

This is probably the hardest one for a planner like me to do something about, and the one I struggle to overcome every day. I love change, I see “a rich landscape of opportunities” and my job has always involved working out how to get there. Vision is great, but what to do today? I’ve developed a system that seems to work for me called GOYA management.

Get Off Your Arse. (The name at least was inspired by my old hero Frederick Herzberg’s famous Harvard Business Review article which debunks KITA management, and everything else on the way). GOYA is what I tell myself to do after I’ve worked out what I want to achieve, how I propose to achieve it and what I won’t be able to do because I’m doing the other stuff (which all fits into my personal planning joy). So then I tell myself “GOYA and do it.” The planner in me prints out special note pages with sections headings. My inner manager lifts my chair and puts me to work.

So that’s my homage to Taylor Davidson’s How to Fail. Make sure you take a look at the original, what are your lessons learned?

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