Posts Tagged ‘creativity’
The physiological benefits of exercise are well known, and regular exercise can also bring benefit to your work. Any exercise will do of course, starting with just walking as often as possible. The summer brings with it opportunities for broad ranges of outdoor activities. Almost all health studies point to the need for rigorous exercise to be a regular part of your routine in order to achieve the maximum benefit for health and work productivity.
Please be sure to take the survey on exercise and productivity found here.
Yoga is an especially good exercise for those that value a routine (or require a routine to better stick to a program). Rain or shine, hot or cold, day or night, yoga is always there. Centuries old, the health benefits of yoga are highly regarded by practitioners around the world and many religions, psychologists and biologists agree that taking time to rest, focus and center is an important part of human productivity. In the US, a variety of styles of yoga performed in room heated anywhere from 90 to 105+ degrees F has become increasingly popular. The heat provides additional benefits and an extra level of challenge as well. If you value routine, Bikram yoga is especially good since it is precisely the same every class.
Yoga’s history is rooted in meditation and ritual and for many today the spiritual aspect is the high order bit. For others, the spiritual side of yoga is appreciated in the context of other beliefs or just your daily personal life. Even the aum (om) sign or chant carries with it a deep ritual meaning for some as well as a more personally defined spiritual meaning for others.
I was asked about practicing yoga at the All Things D conference by Katie Boehret and she captured a few seconds on the KatieCam. I wanted to elaborate on the benefits by using 5 sayings/expressions that I’ve learned from many of the wonderful yoga instructors I’ve had over the years.
- Be present. At the start of most yoga classes, instructors will remind everyone to “be present”. That means to set aside all that is going on outside the class and to spend the next 90 minutes present in the room, on your mat, and in the practice–no electronics or distractions. How often at work do things outside the context of what you’re working on interfere with the work—did you bring the challenges from the previous meeting into the next meeting or is something going on outside work showing through how you are at work? Take the time at the start of a day, as a meeting starts, or while coding to be present in what you’re doing.
- All that matters is on your mat. Yoga is not a competitive sport.* Yoga is not a race—you can’t finish first, you can’t be faster or lift more. Yoga is about making sure you are focused on what you can do best and that you are doing your best at that. So when practicing, making sure you’re focused on what you are supposed to be focused on is a path to success. The workplace isn’t a competitive sport either. In the workplace, this can mean doing the work you’re supposed to be doing and assuming those around you are doing the same.
- Drishti. Focus is a big part of Yoga. If you lose focus during some balancing pose you probably just fall over. Or if you lose focus on your breathing you very quickly hyperventilate and get exhausted or just turn blue! Drishti is a Sanskrit word that means focus, but a distinct form of focus. You focus but not so intensely that you lose sight of all around you. Rather it is the opposite, where you focus but with a full awareness of the rest of your mat and body. So rather than staring at a dot on the wall in front of you, you gaze at the dot but focus on breathing, your balance, and more. In software projects it is important to be focused—but if you’re too head’s down you miss important connections to what is going on around you or around the code. The full definition of drishti means vision, point of view, or even intelligence and wisdom. It also means being equal in all directions you look and maintaining self-control. A lot of collaboration in product development can be summed up in drishti.
- Yoga practice is not yoga perfect. Many “Type A” personalities find a way to compete in exercise—running times, weight lifted, miles biked and so on. Yoga is designed for life long exercise. There’s always more to do or a way to connect one pose to another you never thought of. Any yogi who has browsed the advanced videos online is quickly humbled by what they cannot do. During those difficult postures, yoga instructors always remind the class that yoga is a practice and it is not called yoga perfect. You do the best you can with the body you have that day, and you commit to practicing the next day. Product development is like this as well—we often say the enemy of the good is the perfect. No product is perfect, but the least perfect product is one that doesn’t ship. Shipping gives you the right to come back the time with improvements and a better product based on what you learned as a team.
- How you do anything is how you do everything. In class, especially when it is hot, you can easily find a way to slack off or find a way to do a pose that might look like you’re posing but in reality you are missing the benefits. Of course you’re just cheating yourself. When an instructor sees this you might hear the most gentle of reminders, “how you do anything is how you do everything”. Put simply this just means that if you are willing to take a shortcut on one pose then where else in life (or in your product) are you willing to take a shortcut. If you’re willing to cheat yourself out of your best efforts, then won’t you cheat others? Always put forth your best efforts, even when you’re pushed to the point of thinking you can’t possibly continue.
That’s a yoga perspective on exercise and well-being that are critical parts of contributing to your work, your project, and your team. While yoga has been my personal approach, what is really important is that you find your approach to physical and mental well-being. Whatever that might be is sure to be a critical tool in your own success.
What do you do to maintain your physical as well as spiritual health in the workplace? What lessons do you bring back to the workplace from your avocation?
*While controversial there do exist yoga competitions — check this out.
Anyone worth their salt in product development knows that listening to customers through any and all means possible is the means to innovation. Wait a minute, anyone worth their salt in product development knows that listening to customers leads to a faster horse.
Deciding your own product choices within these varying perspectives is perhaps the seminal challenge in product development, tech products or otherwise. This truly is a tyranny of or, but one in which changing the rules of the game is the very objective.
In this discussion, which is such a common dialog in the halls of HBS as well tech companies everywhere it should probably be a numbered conversation (for this blog let’s call this Conversation #38 for shorthand—disrupt or die).
For a recent discussion about why it is so difficult for large companies to face changes in the marketplace, see this post Why Corporate Giants Fail to Change.
“Disrupt or die” or “disrupt and die”?
Failure to evolve a product as technologies change or as customer scenarios change is sure to lead to obsolescence or elimination from the marketplace. It is difficult to go a day in tech product development without hearing about technology disruption or “innovator’s dilemma”. The biggest fear we all have in tech is failing to keep up with the changing landscape of technologies and customers, and how those intersect.
At the same time, hopefully we all get to that lucky moment when our product is being used actively by customers who are paying. We’re in that feedback loop. We are improving the product, more is being sold, and we’re on a roll.
That’s when innovation over time looks like this:
In this case as time progresses the product improves in a fairly linear way. Listening to customers becomes a critical skill of the product team. Product improvements are touted as “listening to customers” and things seem to go well. This predictability is comforting for the business and for customers.
That is, until one day when needs change or perhaps in addition a new product from a competitor is released. Seemingly out of nowhere the great feedback loop we had looks like it won’t help. If we’re fortunate enough to be in tune to changing dynamics outside our core (and growing) customer base we have time to react and change our own product’s trajectory.
That’s when innovation looks like this:
This is a time when the market is receptive to a different point of view, and a different product — one that redefines, or reimagines, the category. Sometimes customers don’t even realize they are making a category choice, but all of a sudden they are working differently. People just have stuff to get done and find tools that help.
We’re faced with what seems like an obvious choice—adjust the product feature set and focus to keep up with the new needs of customers. Failing to do so risks losing out on new sales, depth usage, or even marginalization. Of course features/capabilities is a long list that can include price, performance, battery life, reliability, simplicity, APIs, different integration points or service connections, and any other attributes that might be used by a new entrant to deliver a unique point of view around a similar scenario.
Many folks will be quick to point out that such is only the case if a new product is a “substitute” for the product people are newly excited about. There is truth to this. But there is also a reality shown time and time again which gets to the heart of tech bets. It is almost always the case that a new product that is “adjacent” to your product has some elements of more expensive, more complex in some dimensions, less functional, or less than ideal. Then what seems like an obvious choice, which is to adjust your own product, quickly looks like a fool’s bet. Why would you chase an inferior product? Why go after something that can’t really replace you?
The examples of this are too numerous to count. The iPhone famously sucked at making phone calls (a case where the category of “mobile phone” was under reinvention and making calls turned out to be less important). Solid State storage is famously more expensive and lower capacity than spindle drives (a case where the low power, light weight, small size are more valued in mobile devices). Of course tablets are famously unable to provide apps to replace some common professional PC experiences (a case where the value of mobility, all day battery life, always connected seem more valued than a set of platform capabilities). Even within a large organization we can see how limited feature set cloud storage products are being used actively by employees as “substitutes” for enterprise portals and file shares (a case where cross-organization sharing, available on the internet, and mobile access are more valued than the full enterprise feature set). The list goes on and on.
As product managers we all wish it was such a simple choice when we face these situations. Simply leapfrog the limited feature set product with some features on our profitable product. Unfortunately, not every new product that might compete with us is going to disrupt us. So in addition to facing the challenges of evolving the product, we also have to decide which competitors to go after. Often it takes several different attempts by competitive products to offer just enough in the way of new / different approaches to begin to impact an established product.
Consider for example of how much effort the Linux community put into desktop Linux. And while this was going on, Android and iOS were developed and offered a completely different approach that brings new scenarios to life. A good lesson is that usually a head-on alternative will quite often struggle and might even result in missing other disruptive technologies. Having a unique point of view is pretty important.
The reality of this situation is that it is only apparent in hindsight. While it is going on the changes are so small, the product features so minimal, and the base of the customers choosing a new path so narrow that you don’t realize what is going on. In fact, the new product is also on an incremental innovation path, having attained a small amount of traction, and that incremental innovation rapidly accumulates. There is a tipping point.
That is what makes acting during such a “crisis” so urgent. Since no one is first all the time (almost by definition when you’re the leader), deciding when and how to enter a space is the critical decision point. The irony is that the urgency to act comes at a time when it appears from the inside to be the least urgent.
Choosing to innovate means accepting the challenges
We’ve looked at the landscape and we’ve decided as a team that our own product needs to change course. There is a real risk that our product (business) will be marginalized by a new entry adjacent to us.
We get together and we come up with the features and design to go after these new scenarios and capabilities.
The challenge is that some of what we need to do involves changing course—this is by definition what is going on. You’re Apple and you decide that making phone calls is not the number 1 feature of your new mobile phone or your new tablet won’t run OS X apps. Those are product challenges. You also might face all sorts of challenges in pricing, positioning, and all the things that come from having a stable business model. For example, your competitor offers a free substitute for what you are selling.
The problem is your existing customers have become conditioned to expect improvements along the path we were traveling together. Worse, they are by definition not expecting an “different” product in lieu of a new version of their favorite product. These customers have built up not just expectations, but workflows, extensions, and whole jobs around your product.
But this is not about your existing and best customers, no matter how many, it is about the foundation of your product shifting and you’re seeing new customers use a new product or existing customers use your product less and less.
Moving forward the product gets built and it is time to get it into market for some testing or maybe you just release it.
All that work your marketing team has done over the years to establish what it means to “win” in the space that you were winning is now used against you. All the “criteria” you established against every competitor that came along are used to show that the new product is not a winning product. Except it is not winning in the old way. What you’ve done is become your own worst enemy.
But even then, the new way appears to be the less than optimal way—more expensive, less features, more clicks, or simply not the same at doing things the product used to do.
The early adopters or influential users (that was an old term in the literature, “IEU” or sometimes “lead user”) are immediately taken aback by the change in direction. The workflows, keystroke memory, add-ins, and more are just not the same or no longer optimal–there’s no regard for the new scenarios or capabilities when the old ones are different. Worse, they project their views across all customer segments. “I can’t figure this out, so imagine how hard it will be for my parents” or “this will never be acceptable in the enterprise” are common refrains in tech.
This happens no matter who a product is geared towards or how complex the product was in the first place. It is not how it does anything but the change in how it did things people were familiar with. This could be in user experience, pricing, performance, platform requirements or more.
You’re clearly faced with a set of choices that just don’t look good. In Lean Startup, Eric Ries talks in detail about the transition from early users of a new product to a wider audience. In this context, what happens is that the early users expect (or tolerate) a very different set of features and have very different expectations about what is difficult or easy. His conclusion is that it is painful to make the transition, but at some point your learning is complete and it is time to restart the process of learning by focusing on the broader set of customers.
In evolving an existing product, the usage of a pre-release is going to look a lot like the usage of the current release. The telemetry proves this for you, just to make this an even more brutal challenge. In addition, because of the years of effort the enthusiasts put into doing things a certain way and all that work establishing criteria for how a product should work, the obvious thing to do when testing a new release is to try everything out the old release did and compare to the old product (the one you are changing course of) and then maybe some new stuff. This looks a lot like what Eric describes for startups. For products in market, the moment is pretty much like the startup moment since your new product is sort of a startup, but for a new trajectory.
Remember what brought us here, two things:
- The environment of usage or business around the product was changing and a bet was made that changes were material to the team. With enough activity in the market, someone will always argue that this change is different and the old and new will coexist and not cannibalize each other (tell that to PalmPilot owners who swore phones would be separate from calendar and contacts, or GPS makers who believe in stand-alone units, or…).
- A reminder that if Henry Ford had asked customers what they wanted from a car they would have said a faster horse. The market was conditioned to ask for and/or expect improvements along a certain trajectory and no matter what you are changing that trajectory.
All the data is flowing in that shows the new product is not the old product on the old path. Not every customer is interested in doing new things, especially the influential testers who generally focus on the existing ways of doing things, have domain expertise, and are often the most connected to the existing product and all that it encompasses. There is an irony in that for tech these customers are also the most tech-savvy.
Pretty quickly, listening to customers is looking exceedingly difficult.
If you listen to customers (and vector back to the previous path in some way: undo, product modes, multiple products/SKUs, etc.) you will probably cede the market to the new entrants or at least give them more precious time. If technology product history is any guide, pundits will declare you will be roadkill in fairly short order as you lack a strategic response. There’s a good chance your influential customers will rejoice as they can go back and do what they always did. You will then be left without an answer for what comes next for your declining usage patterns.
If you don’t listen to customers (and stick to your guns) you are going to “alienate” folks and cede the market to someone who listens. If technology product history is any guide, pundits will declare that your new product is not resonating with the core audience. Pundits will also declare that you are stubborn and not listening to customers.
All of this is monumentally difficult simply because you had a successful product. Such is the price of success. Disrupting is never easy, but it is easier if you have nothing to lose.
Many folks will be quick to say that new products are fine but they should just have the old product’s way of doing things. This can seem like asking for a Prius with a switch to turn off the battery (my 2002 Prius came with a training DVD, parking attendant reference card, and more!). There are many challenges with the “side by side” approach. The most apparent is that it only delays the change (meaning delays your entry into the new market or meeting of new scenarios). Perhaps in a world of cloud-services this is more routine where you have less of a “choice” in the change, but the operational costs are real. In client code/apps the challenge becomes very quickly doing things twice. The more complex the changes are the more costly this becomes. In software nothing is free.
Product development is a social science.
People and time
In this numbered conversation, “disrupt or die” there are a few factors that are not often discussed in detail when all the debates happen.
First, people adapt. The assumption, especially about complex tech products, is that people have difficulty or lack of desire to change. While you can always overshoot the learning people can or are willing to do, people are the most adaptable part of a system. One way to think about this is that every successful product in use today, those that we all take for granted, were introduced to a customer base that had to change behavior. We would not be where we are today without changing and adapting. If one reflects, the suboptimal change (whether for the people that are customers or the people running a business) is apparent with every transition we have made. Even today’s tablets are evidence of this. Some say they are still for “media consumption” and others say they are “productivity tools”. But behind the scenes, people (and developers) are rapidly and actively changing and adapting to the capabilities of tablets because the value proposition is so significantly improved in some dimensions.
Second, time matters. Change is only relative to knowledge people have at a moment in time and the customers you have at the moment. New people are entering the customer base all the time and there is a renewal in skills, scenarios, and usage patterns. Five years ago almost no one used a touch screen for very much. Today, touch is a universally accepted (and expected) input method. The customer base has adapted and also renewed around touch. Universities are the world’s experts at understanding this notion of renewal. They know that any change to policy at a university is met with student resistance (especially in the spring). They also know that next year, 25% of the “customer base” will be replaced. And in 3 summers all the students on campus will only know the new way. One could call that cynical. One could also call that practical.
Finally time means that major product change, disruption, is always a multi-step process. Whether you make a bet to build a new product that disrupts the market dynamics or change an existing product that disrupts your own product, it rarely happens in one step. Phones added copy/paste and APIs and even got better at the basics. The pivot is the tool of the new endeavor until there is some traction. Feedback, refinement, and balancing the need to move to a new space with the need to satisfy the installed base are the tools of the established product “pivoting” in response to a changed world. It takes time and iteration–just the same way it took time and iteration to get to the first summit. Never lose sight of the fact that disrupting is also product development and all the challenges that come from that remain–just because you’re disrupting does not mean what you do will be perfect–but that’s a given we all work with all the time. We always operate knowing there is more change to come, improvements and fixes, as we all to learn by shipping.
Part of these factors almost always demonstrate, at least in the medium term, that disruption is not synonymous with elimination. Those championing disruption often over-estimate progress towards elimination in the short term. Though history has shown the long term to be fairly predictable. Black cars are still popular. They just aren’t the only cars.
Product development choices are based on social science. There is never a right answer. Context is everything. You cannot A/B test your way to big bets or decisions about technology disruption. That’s what makes all of this so fun!!
Go change the rules of the game!
Note. I believe “disrupt or die” is the name of a highly-regarded management class at General Electric’s management school.
Today was “Launch Day” for the startups in Harvard’s first year MBA program. Many of the products and services created are available on the web to try out or to order (though several are specific to the Boston area). The process of creating the company from scratch, with a limited budget, on a tight deadline, in a collaborative team environment is super cool.
This post introduces you to over a dozen new companies. Check them out!
The Harvard MBA program enrolls over 1800 students, which means there are about 900 students in each year. The whole year is divided up into sections and you spend your academic year within your section (the startups in this post are all from Section C, which I was lucky enough to work with, led by Prof. Jan Hammond). There are about 90 students in a section (and 6 students in each startup team). As a first year student in Harvard’s MBA program (RC—required curriculum) you take a series of required courses generally taught using the traditional case method. Starting last year, the RC introduced the FIELD program, Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development, a full year program which emphasizes learning by experience.
For the spring semester, FIELD3 focuses on creating a new company from scratch (FIELD1 is about leadership, FIELD2 is about global topics). Imagine you are given a small cash budget, a fixed team size, and a fixed schedule including specific milestones for investment, viability and launch! That’s what FIELD3 is all about.
The calendar is roughly:
- Two weeks to develop a product concept
- Funding simulation (“stock market”) which gives some teams the opportunity to raise more capital and others will need to make do with less, and thus pivot their ideas
- About 8 weeks to fully develop the idea, go to market strategy, prototype or actual product, and basically to show that the product can be made
- Launch day – this is where we are today! On this day your product or service is ready to be used by people. The stock market is opened for trading and based on the launch readiness and pitches, the value of companies goes up or down and some companies do not make it past this stage.
- About 3 weeks to actually sell the product or service and ready for…
- IPO day!
Of course this an academic exercise but it is also a very serious one as it brings together much of the classroom learning into focus for a real world trial. The products and services are real and really meant to be used by people outside the student community. That’s why you’ll be able to try them out below.
Today was launch day. Each company (there are 15 companies in a section) has 10 minutes to pitch their ideas to the section that will buy/sell shares in those 15 companies (these are done pairwise so Section C are the investors in another section).
In the pitch, the investors see:
- Demonstration and/or Product samples
- Business fundamentals
- Competitive advantage
- Demand generation approach
Below you can see a pitch by one of the companies that created a packaged product that enables children to customize a pair of plain sneakers. Here you see the market testing summarized along with the countdown clock for the pitch.
All of the startups used tools of modern product development. Eric Reis, author of Lean Startup, is an Entrepreneur in Residence at Harvard and so the ideas of “MVP”, measuring the right things, and even the pivot are all front and center for the founders. Because of the markets and the feedback loop, a number of companies in Section C went through substantial pivots.
The companies also make use of all the platform tools we see today that are available to quickly create new companies: paypal, wepay, shopify, AWS, and more. Businesses requiring components source them from local manufacturers or online such as Alibaba. Plus the companies make use of local services such as Task Rabbit or Harvard Student Agencies in order to bootstrap any labor that might be required. Apps target widely used mobile platforms. Facebook, twitter, and Google were used for sourcing early testers and demand generation/awareness via tools such as SEO and keyword buys in addition to branding sites.
Also critical, is that all companies adhere to local and state laws for anything that involves safety, privacy, and more. HBS has a code of conduct and separate set of rules around how the companies can interact with the University Community. So yes, this is like real life!!
Each pitch must also leave time for investor questions. These can be pointed and often return back to the previous rounds of investment. The investors are not given unlimited funds and are also keeping “score” trying to maximize their own return. This is a full financial market simulation.
Here’s the ticker before the market opened based on the closing prices of the last round:
Here’s a chance to try out a few of the companies and see the work – keep in mind this is work done in the past 10 weeks or so and almost all coding was done via outsourcing! Personally, I could not be more impressed with the progress and the ability for the companies to navigate the tricky waters of both developing a product and a business, all while learning and doing all their other class work!
View The Rental (ticker:VIEW, http://www.viewtherental.com/). View the Rental provides objective information about apartments and houses for rent in Boston or Cambridge via remote video chat for renters who are unable to view their rental in person. This product uses Skype to establish a live walk-through of the exact apartment you might be renting.
RescueMe (ticker:RSCU, http://rescuememedical.com/, also available at local retailers). Traveling for Spring Break? Don’t leave without RescueMe, the all-in-one travel meds (and essentials) pack!
My Friend Bert (ticker:BERT, http://www.myfriendbert.com/). MyFriendBert provides expert-planned, customized date itineraries tailored to your preferences, delivered right to your inbox within 24 hours.
LaunchPad (ticker:PREP, http://getlaunchpad.net). Looking for a job or an internship? LaunchPad gives you the answers you need to stand out in your job search. LaunchPad sets up a customized 1:1 conversation between a student looking for a job and someone in that field who can offer advice and feedback on the industry or approach to finding a position.
easybiodata (ticker:BIO, http://www.easybiodata.com). Targeted at singles of Indian background, easybiodata is a solution to matrimonial search. Creating, Sharing and Managing your Biodata has never been easier with easybiodata.com whether you are the parent or extended family member helping the matrimonial search. EasyBiodata.com helps you spend less time sending emails so you can spend more time finding the perfect candidate. (Note: showing the global nature of the typical HBS team, this team was made up of students from 6 different countries: USA, Japan, Haiti, Slovak Republic, Kenya, and India).
Dinner Rally (ticker: RLLY, http://www.dinnerrally.com/). The best food from Harvard Square delivered straight to your door. Dinner Rally makes available food that is not normally delivered at a very affordable price, delivered straight to your door.
HuddleUp (ticker:HDDL, http://huddleevents.com). HuddleUp helps fans find the best place to watch their upcoming sports games at local bars. We know it can be tough, especially for fans of out-of-town teams, to find places to watch their games AND other fans to watch with.
Sepono (ticker: SPNP, http://sepono.co/). Sepono delivers on-demand nail and salon service booking. Tapping into over 1400 spas in the Boston area, Sepono makes it easy to find an appointment and obtain service.
SitCrawlWalk (ticker: BABY, http://www.sitcrawlwalk.com/). SitCrawlWalk We help parents discover the best products for their little ones at each stage of the baby’s life. Featuring reviews, curated and clutter free product offerings, and unbiased research sitcrawlwalk is a unique shopping approach tapping into the market for “social shopping” and affiliate sales.
PaintSteps (ticker:PNTS, http://www.paintsteps.com/). A creative shoe painting kit that lets your children’s creativity flourish and keep children occupied in a fun activity for hours. It includes a pair of children’s white canvas shoes, safe acrylic paint, palette and brushes, as well as an educational inspiration book. The inspiration book is designed by a professional illustrator and allows children to practice coloring on paper before painting the shoes.
stARTworks (ticker:ARTS, http://startworks.myshopify.com). Welcome to stARTworks brings the beautiful artwork of blossoming student and local artists to your doorstep! Here, you can view and purchase existing pieces, or create custom art from your own pictures and photos. Browse our artist pages or “What We Do” section to get started today! stARTworks is a socially conscious company that supports local and student artists.
Blinq (ticker:BLNQ, http://blinqpoll.com or https://www.facebook.com/pages/blinQ/534331106610301). blinQ is a mobile application that allows you to ask your friends for advice in real time before making time sensitive decisions.
PrepChef (ticker:CHEF, http://myprepchef.net). Simple, delicious recipes delivered right to your door! Free delivery includes portioned ingredients delivered to your door and simple step-by-step instructions. Teach yourself how to cook, host a dinner party, or just enjoy an evening of a self-cooked meal.
Party In A Box (ticker:PRTY, http://boxyourparty.com). One click theme party solution for those who love to party, like experimenting with new party themes and want great supplies and decorations delivered to their door. Feeling nostalgic for Backstreet Boys, slap bracelets and the Fresh Prince? Check out our 1990s box. Missing Ferris Bueller, track suits and bad hair? Our 1980s box has you covered. Your friends at Party-in-a-Box are also here for you on those special, once-in-a-year events: St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Independence Day, the Kentucky Derby, etc.
Phew…those are just the companies from Section C. There are 9 other RC sections as well. You can see that many of these company ideas came about because of the unique problems faced by students leaving the workforce, relocating, traveling, meeting new people, living the life of students, and so on. Mother necessity is alive and well in FIELD3.
The stock market is still open and folks are still settling on their investments.
The next step will be the IPOs. But you can try these out now (note, some require you to be in Boston). And who knows, some of these might be the seeds of future companies as students continue to evolve the businesses.
It might seem cool if there is a line outside someone’s door (or an inbox full of follow-ups in Outlook or a multi-week wait to “get on the schedule”). ”Boy that person is really important” is what folks might say. In reality this bottleneck is a roadblock to progress and a sign of a team in need of change.
Most of the time we see managers with a line outside a door, but it can also be key leaders on a team of all sorts. Here are some tips to get out of the way and stop the gridlock.
Be sure to take the poll at the end of this post http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/QXR9WLZ. Feel free to use the comments to share your experience with a bottleneck on your team–there are folks out there probably experiencing something similar and benefit from your perspective. At the end of this post are the results from Career: Journey or Destination, which has some very interesting trends.
Why is there a line?
Managers or org leaders are busy. But so are the members of the team that work for the manager or depend on that leader. Unfortunately the way things go, too many folks end up as a bottleneck in getting things done. It might be a sign of importance or genuine workload, but it can also be a sign of a structural challenge. What are some of the reasons for a line?
- Approval. A manager asks to approve work before it can move forward.
- Feedback. Members of the team awaiting feedback from on proposed work.
- Decision. A leader is the decision maker in a situation.
On the face of it, each of these sound like the role of a manager (or leader, we’ll use them interchangeably in this post). The dictionary definition of a manager even supports this, “a person who has control or direction of an institution, business, etc., or of a part, division, or phase of it”. The operative notion is “in charge”.
There are several problems with this approach:
- Demotivating. If a job involves creativity (artistic, design, creation, problem solving, or a million other ways of being creative) then people who do those jobs well don’t generally do their best work under control. At an extreme, highly creative people are notorious for not wanting to be directed. The close cousin of demotivating is disempowering and very quickly creative people on the team lose the motivation to do great work and seek to get by with merely good work.
- Scale. A manager that operates a team as an “extension” of him/herself is not highly scalable. The line out the door represents the scale problem—it is trying to squeeze 64 bits through a 32 bit gate. There’s simply more work than can be done. The manager is overworked trying to do the work of the whole team, which is not sustainable.
- Slow. A manager that inserts him/herself in the middle of the flow of work causes the flow of work to slow down. The reaction time of the whole team no longer represents the capability of the team, but is limited by the ability of one person. Most folks are pretty frustrated by the roadblock to approval and then ultimately approval of the work as initially presented.
- Tactical. Those who operate in the middle of the work like this often justify their style as “adding strategic context”. This is often the exact opposite of what happens as the person is too busy to breath, take a step back, or to think long term because of the line out the door!
There are many justifications for why managers see these downsides as worth the risk. Managers feel like they have the experience to do better, know more, or maybe the team is new, understaffed, and so on. These are juicy rationalizations. Like parents doing homework and school projects for their kids, the short term seems reasonable but the long term becomes problematic.
Beyond gridlock, the deep, long term problem created by a line outside a manager’s door is the transferal of accountability that takes place. Once the manager is in the middle of approving, providing feedback, or deciding then the very best case is that the manager is accountable for the outcome. Wait, you say that’s always the case, right?
A manager should be accountable when things don’t go well and stand up to claim the work of the team that wasn’t what it needed to be. When things go well, the manager should fade away and the team should shine. This isn’t some ideal. This is just the basics of teamwork and what needs to happen. That goes beyond management and is leadership.
But when a manager is in the middle of everything, members of the team have a tough time feeling a sense of pride of ownership. The further the results are from ideal, the less likely individuals feel responsible. It is simply too easy to point to places where each person surrendered accountability to management. And unfortunately, this opens up potential for the worst form of dysfunction which is a manager in the middle of everything stepping back and still assigning accountability to the team when things don’t go well, politics.
Ultimately, any healthy team is about everyone feeling an equal sense of accountability for the groups work and full accountability for their work. The role of the manager is to create a team and workflow that enables everyone to contribute and grow.
Rhythm of the team
The most important thing a manager can do to create a workflow for the team is to foster a continuous rhythm of work on the team. The world of modern products and service means things are in a state of change and adaptation all the time. Stores roll over promotions constantly. Web sites are always being programmed. Social networks provide a constant dialog to contribute to and respond to. Product feedback is available all the time. The team that is standing on a line is not just missing all the action, but is playing a losing strategy.
In his famous book, Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about how important it is to be engaged in self-controlled, goal-related, meaningful actions. That when you’re doing that you are in a flow and things are much better (“happier”) for everyone.
A flow on a business team or product team is about working towards a shared goal and doing so without the starts and stops that interrupt the flow. As a manager there are two simple things you can do:
- Never schedule your full day. As a rule of thumb, you should never schedule more than 50% of your day in structured meetings and other required activities. This leaves your day for “work” which is your work as a contributor (being a manager does not mean you stop having concrete deliverables!) and for keeping things from being blocked by you. If you have time during the day you can interact in an ad hoc manner with the team, find time to participate before things reach a bottleneck, and most importantly you have time to listen and learn. This is the number one crisis prevention tool at your disposal. The more time you have available the more time you can provide feedback when the time is right for action, as an example. You can provide feedback when a plan is a draft and do so casually and verbally, rather than the team “presenting” a draft in a meeting and you needing to react, or sending you an attachment that forms another line in your inbox, all usually too late for substantial feedback anyway.
- Stop approving and deciding. As heretical as this sounds, as an experiment a manager is encouraged to spend a month pushing back on the team when they ask for approval or a decision. Instead just ask them to decide. Ask them what would go wrong if they decided. Ask them if they are prepared for the implications of a decision either way. Ask them if they are comfortable owning and “defending” a decision (knowing you as the manager will still be supporting them anyway).
As a member of the team waiting in line, there’s an option for you too. Instead of asking for approval or the other side of the coin, acting now and worrying later, take the time to frame your choice in a clear and confident manner. Don’t be defensive, aggressive, or shift accountability, but simply say “Here’s what I’m suggesting as a course of action and what we’re prepared to deal with as the risk…” No choice is free of risk. The risky path is simply not being prepared for what could potentially go wrong.
The optimal team is one that is moving forward all the time and operating with a flow and rhythm. A line outside the door of a manager is a sign of a dysfunctional team. It isn’t hard to break the cycle. Give it a shot.
The poll on this post is http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/QXR9WLZ. Let’s share thoughts on those lines outside doors.
Thanks to everyone who responded to our last survey on the “Defining your career path: journey or destination” post. We had an amazing response, with over 800 responses from around the world. Here are a few of the highlights:
- On average (mean), people have spent around 13 years in their career
- In those years, people have held 5.5 jobs or roles; or about 2 years per job/role
- About 26% claimed to be mostly “goal oriented”
- About 60% claimed to be mostly “experience oriented”
- 6% more sought to be “organization leaders” vs. “domain experts” (41% vs. 35%)
- And about 8% more sought to be “breadth leaders” vs. “field experts (42% vs. 34%)
- On average, we’re pretty satisfied with our careers: 3.7 on a 5-point scale
In this survey we had a nice “response variable” to consider: career satisfaction. If we agree that this is a goal we share, we can consider how the other “explanatory variables” contribute to overall career satisfaction:
- Those that claimed to be more “experience oriented” tended to have a higher level of career satisfaction vs. those that were more “goal oriented”; those that reported being “very satisfied” with their careers were >3x more likely to be “experience oriented”
- Those with longer careers tended to be more satisfied: both “career years” and “number of jobs” provided a fractional lift in the 5-point career satisfaction scale
- Pursuing a goal of “organizational leader” tended to provide more lift than “domain expert”
- And pursuing a experiences as a “field expert” tended to provide more lift to satisfaction than experiences as a “breadth leader” (though more consider themselves to be the latter)
- None of the models built in analyzing this data did a great job of explaining all of the variance in your responses; we are all different and find satisfaction in our careers in different ways
Bottom Line: There is no “silver bullet” which guarantees our career satisfaction; people are different and their satisfaction is driven by various factors, at different career stages. That said, as leaders, we generally tend to find satisfaction based on our experiences with other people (as org leaders, experts in our field, more time in our careers/more roles over time) over the specific goals or attained knowledge we encounter through our journey.
Thanks for your responses!
When you’re creating a new product or service, whether as a startup or within a big company, you’re going to be faced with doubters from every direction. People on the team, your boss, your peers, your investors, friends, family. Even when the first outsiders see the product they will probably be more doubtful than supportive. The most important thing is to avoid doubting yourself.
If you thought up the idea, got funding or approval to go forward then persevering is a key part of getting the work done. The doubting you’ll most certainly get can feel almost crippling. In the extreme it turns into those increasing moments of self-doubt and ultimately a loss of confidence. That self-doubt can prevent new ideas, new products, from growing to success.
The converse of this behavior is to dig your heels in and to just stubbornly move ahead as though no one has expressed any doubt. You’re getting stuff done. As things progress there’s a good chance you’re increasing the distance between you and your early supporters-but-doubters. That over-confidence can prevent new ideas, new products, from making small but necessary changes that can substantially increase their chances for success.
Finding the right balance between caving in and stubborn is something everyone can work on. There’s no right answer, but you can look for signs or signals that your balance needs some tuning.
5 ways to doubt
Doubts are going to be everywhere in a new venture. In new products there are a few common doubts that you should be mentally prepared to hear. If you know these are coming you can use that as a chance to consider how you are going to engage in a discussion about that sort of doubt—not how you dispense with or handle the doubt, but how you can talk about why you might have a different point of view.
- Been done before. Very few new products are “new to the world inventions”. Even things that are new to the world often solve pretty well-known problems. In reality most all products are incremental when you step back and consider the full context and landscape. From Velcro® to the Swiffer ® to Facebook and Instagram, these products were incredibly innovative but by and large the innovation amounted to new combinations of some new technologies aimed at solving somewhat known problems. You can get yourself in quite a spiral if you think your product needs to be an invention versus an innovation. Thinking about your innovation and value delivered can help you through this.
- Just a feature. In new services in the tech industry we constantly see people saying that a new product is “just a feature”. There’s always some truth to that, but it is because it has to do—as a consumer you don’t want every service that comes along reinventing everything around the social fiber for example and as a company you don’t want to spend resources on work outside your value proposition. Finding the balance between your unique perspective and value and simply adding all the stuff around your value is something to work through and be clear about.
- No one wants that. The focus group of one is both your biggest asset and biggest liability in building a product. If you let one person, from your best friend to your spouse to your boss, convince you that no one wants a new product then too many ideas will fail to make it to fruition. As the person taking the risk to seek funding or get approval for an idea, you owe it to yourself to keep pushing. When the focus group of one is yourself and you’re taking the risk that is the very definition of entrepreneurial thinking. You saw a problem, an opportunity, or a solution. There’s always a time to take a step back but at the early stages a focus group of one that is yourself is pretty important.
- Priced wrong. All new technology products are going to be either too cheap or too expensive. If you’re building a new device, it will always be too expensive in the early stages because the industry is, as we all know, based on economies of scale. A new service or app is always going to struggle to simply charge people or find space for advertising from the start. Too cheap/too expensive is going to happen. Rather than just punt or just restate the known answers (from it will scale to freemium) perhaps you can differentiate your answer to these concerns with some novel or detailed thinking.
- Doesn’t fit with strategy. In a large organization you are, with 100% certainty, going to run up against “strategy” as you propose your new idea. This can be a frustrating experience to a champion of a new idea (or new way to solve a problem). You can throw up your hands in a huff. You can claim “innovator’s dilemma”. You can talk about stifling bureaucracy. The important thing to do during this doubting moment is to be informed about these strategic issues. These are real to a large company because a strategy is a unique part of what a large organization delivers to customers—it is more than a collection of products, but the relationship and between them and reasons they are offered.
5 ways to be over-confident
While many from the outside will be doubting you, the most important thing to do is overcome your natural reaction to dig your heels in and be stubborn. When doubt is expressed it is your chance to engage in a dialog and to calmly evangelize your idea while hearing the doubt as feedback. We all know that when you’re pushing a new idea there are things to do better. This is especially true when you’re in the early stages and developing your “story” as to why the idea should get turned into a product. What are some things you might be over-confident about that the doubters might actually be saying?
- Wasn’t clear. In talking about a potential new product the most common challenge is a problem between your brain and your mouth or keyboard :-) In other words, as crystal clear as the ideas are in your head, when you say them or write them down it just seems like other people are not “getting it”. Your own excitement and enthusiasm, or your own “ah ha” moment, isn’t getting translate into a pitch or description that others can grok. After the third or fourth person saying they are confused or your conversations are “all over the map” then maybe you should take a step back and work on the description and story behind the idea?
- Didn’t study the competition. When folks say an idea isn’t new or has been done before, then it could be that you are not expressing the unique attributes of your idea in a compelling way or perhaps your unique attributes are not unique enough (or valued). It could also be that you’re not expert enough on the competition. Maybe in your excitement you missed a competitor or you dismissed a competitor too quickly? Keep in mind the competition isn’t standing still so maybe things have changed from when you looked?
- Design is weak. Software products often get pitched before the design and flow of usage are understood. For a product that is solving a known problem in a new way, the design is a critical element of what you’re offering. In that case it really isn’t enough to pitch the idea as “don’t worry we’ll do a better design later” because your design is integral to the offering. For any product that is entering a commodity space with a new twist on uniqueness (branding, distribution, pricing, bundling, etc.) the design of those elements (yes pricing can be designed) need to be more than sketches since those aspects are key to what you’re doing. Without that level of detail you might be missing the crux of the doubt.
- Trying to do too much. “Boiling the ocean” is a common refrain when experienced people see an idea for a product that involves touching many known areas of existing products. If you’re service starts off with the need to build out a whole infrastructure before you can even start to show your unique value or if you have a feature list a mile long, then there’s a good chance the doubt is not focused on your idea, but on the scope of what you’re trying to do. Everyone loves big ideas, but rebuilding the world as the pre-requisite is a sign that you can do a better job scoping the first milestone or so of work.
- Clinging to the wrong elements. Many times in talking about an idea and in the early stages, every single choice you make is critical. As the one originating the idea you tend to think of your product as a finely balanced set of decisions, each carefully interrelated. As things progress, you owe it to yourself and doubters to make sure you are revisiting some choices. Do you really need that architecture? Is that UI widget really that important? Is it critical that you have that feature? In most every new product you can see something that you know was an early choice and doesn’t quite fit anymore. Be the person leading the charge to back out of choices that are no longer key to delivering the value proposition. You’re in a unique position to decide what can really go.
Keep in mind
From the moment you think up an idea until the first working models/prototypes are used by potential customers you’re going to run into doubts from all corners. It is easy to lose confidence. It is easy to become over-confident. Balancing these two extremes is an important part of being brave enough to keep pushing forward. New ideas can’t get turned into products without the skills to navigate this complex and emotional stage in product development.
Two things are always part of these early stages and important worth keeping in mind.
First, validation is hard to come by. You will get tons of support and even encouragement from those around you. But validation won’t come for a while. Hang tight.
And second, product development is hard. No one said building a new product or getting a big company to break into a new business (or redo an old business) is easy. There are no right answers. There’s no certainty. Doubts come from shaking things up.
Ideas are everywhere. Embrace them. Criticizing an idea is a sport on the web—snarking. Sometimes the very web that craves innovation and newness steps on the dialog with unrelenting and utterly irrelevant snark. In practice, turning ideas into products is the amazing, miraculous, thing that is product development.
Products get developed pulling from the same ideas, tools, and even skills available to a broad set of people. Mere inches separate just products from breakthrough products. Part of a breakthrough product is about embracing new paradigms and those new paradigms should be debated and discussed, but most of all embraced. It takes a brave person to question the existing and put forth new paradigms.
Paradigm to dialog
In a recent op-ed piece a concept was put forth, a potential new metaphor for computing by the highly regarded and widely published David Gelertner. It was a thought-provoking essay. I think that is what the author intended.
In fact the essay argued for a new metaphor by establishing the importance of metaphors in the evolution of computing. Metaphors are how we interact with computing—from two digit numeric displays, to line printers, to command lines, to GUI, to the web, and now social and mobile. Beyond that, the details of these metaphors matter greatly and are worthy of much dialog and debate.
Regretfully as we have all come to expect, the comments on the post quickly devolved into meaningless snark and commentary unworthy of the packets and storage they consumed. There were even tweets about the commentary. What was an essay that could provide the foundation for an interesting dialog among those that build products became, in part, a snarkfest.
Some claimed the idea was not new. Google reader is in fact the worldstream. Some claimed that we live in a stream every day with Facebook and twitter. Some said the idea won’t work.
My read is that this was an essay about metaphor, not a spec and certainly not an app you can try out and comment on. The very “desktop” I am writing this on was envisioned in an essay in 1945, As We May Think, by then head of Office of Scientific Research. Let’s not forget that the web itself once started off as an essay on a metaphor of hyperlinking by Ted Nelson in 1965 which was not implemented until 1967 or until 1993 depending on how you count.
Would these essays have been the subject of such snark? Maybe they were and history has rightfully forgotten those expressions. We should all be clear that essays like these are what change the face of computing.
Read them. Join the dialog. Ignore them if you want. They are not all great or even good. But to criticize them in a content-free manner or to debate them as though they are product specs misses the point completely.
Dialog to product
Taking the dialog around a paradigm shift and turning into a product is magical. Few people can or do make this happen. It is very hard.
A product of a new paradigm is by definition different, but not every aspect is different in every way. In fact the most amazing part about a paradigm shifting product is how much of a derivative work it turns out to be.
Every new product and every new paradigm product are the result of taking the ingredients of the world and pouring those into the primordial soup of product development. Out comes a new product. It is never exactly the same as what came before.
What separates one plain old new product from one that changes our view of technology is a set of choices separated my mere inches. What’s the difference between Facebook and Myspace or Friendster (or a dozen other services)? Were there touch phones before the iPhone? MS-DOS was one of many command line program loaders.
I stumbled across this view of turning an idea into a feature in an app. I love how it characterizes the amount of work and number of choices it takes to do so. How Software is Built Today.
Taking an idea and turning it into a product is incredibly fun and challenging.
Picking the ideas to push to a product takes a lot of guts and sometimes a leap of faith.
Essays that challenge the status quo and push us to think about our world differently are the very source of breakthroughs that we all want.
Embracing that dialog is the start of paradigm shifting products.
Today is a big football game. As Al Paccino’s character, Tony D’Amato said in Any Given Sunday one of the all-time great locker room speeches in film:
You find out life’s this game of inches, so is football. Because in either game – life or football – the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when add up all those inches, that’s gonna make the f***ing difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying!
Ideas are everywhere. Ingredients for new products are everywhere. It is mere inches that separate run of the mill from great to paradigm shifting. The one certain thing is that if you build products you should embrace ideas wherever they come from.
PS: This blog is also available on http://snarkfree.com