Category Archives: inertia

Find the 15-Minute Competitive Advantage

Just because this is a time of transformation doesn’t mean that it’s easy to sell transformational ideas. Economic uncertainty has reduced the audience for bold, grand rhetoric. Besides, even in boom times innovation is risky. Innovators often have to ease anxieties by sounding conservative while doing something radical.

We all want breakthroughs; it’s just that we can’t know exactly which of the bold new ideas will break through. For every Mustang, there’s an Edsel. For every flip phone, there’s a flop. (Apple’s track record — iPod, iTunes, iPhone — is extraordinary but atypical.) It’s is also hard to get traction for ideas that are so far ahead of their times that the infrastructure or human habits do not yet support them. For every dream of cheap renewable energy, there’s the reality of still-high costs of wind turbines or solar panels.

As many technology companies have seen to their peril, you can leap much too far into the future by seeking revolution, not evolution, leaving potential users in the dust. But steady progress — step by single step — can win internal support and the external race for share of market or share of mind. Especially if you take each step quickly.

Consider Woody Allen’s comedy routine about the first landing of UFOs on Earth and our first contact with an advanced civilization (AKA advanced competitor). Allen wrote that most worries about planetary takeovers involve aliens that are light years away and centuries ahead of us in technology, bringing devices we can’t understand or communicate with, which enables them to control everything. Not to worry, Allen said. If we can’t understand or communicate with their systems, we’ll just ignore them, doing our work the way we always do until they leave in frustration. Instead, he argued, the advanced civilization that we should really worry about is one that is just 15 minutes ahead. That way they’d always be first in line for the movies, they’d never miss a meeting with the boss… and they’d always be first in every race.

Call this the “15 minute competitive advantage”: changing in short fast bursts rather than waiting for the breakthrough that transforms everything. If every proverbial 15 minutes, you learn something and incorporate it into the next speedy step, you’ll continue to be ahead. And a few time periods later, transformation will be underway.

Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, praised the value of cheap, fast experiments at a recent CEO meeting. He recalled watching Toyota’s method of continuous improvement on the shop floor: simplifying, speeding, and taking costs out with each round. Bolt instead of weld, tape instead of bolt, hold instead of tape. Cook’s advice is to turn business concepts into hypotheses to test fast. This is the essence of rapid prototyping, and it doesn’t require total transformation.

Stay a little ahead of the competition while close enough to what customers can understand and incorporate, and the innovation idea is easier to sell. Here are some characteristics of innovations most likely to succeed at gaining support:

Trial-able: The idea or product can be demonstrated on a pilot basis. Customers can see it in action first and incorporate it on a small scale before committing to replace everything.

Divisible: It can be adopted in segments or phases. Users can ease into it, a step at a time. They can even use it in parallel with current solutions.

Reversible: If it doesn’t work, it’s possible to return to pre-innovation status. Eventually you want life to be unimaginable without it, but at least in theory, it’s possible to go back to zero.

Tangible: It offers concrete results that can be seen to make a difference in something that users need and value.

Fits prior investments: The idea builds on “sunk costs” or actions already taken, so it looks like not much change is involved.

Familiar: It feels like things that people already understand, so it is not jarring to use. It is consistent with other experiences, especially successful ones.

Congruent with future direction: It is in line with where things are heading anyway. It doesn’t require people to rethink their priorities or pathways, even though of course it changes things.

Positive publicity value: It will make everyone look good.

These principles leave plenty of room to promote revolutionary ideas under cover of evolutionary change. But to find and grow a market for anything — whether green products or new health delivery plans — means staying close to what users can adopt easily and then leading them to the next iteration.

Innovators who take risks must reduce the risk for others. Think long-term trends but short-term steps —15 minutes at a time.

The Little Rules of Action

“The shortest answer is doing.” – Lord Herbert

Too often we get stuck in inaction — the quagmire of doubt and perfectionism and distractions and planning that stops us from moving forward.

And while I’m no proponent of a whirling buzz of activity, I also believe people get lost in the distractions of the world and lose sight of what’s important, and how to actually accomplish their Something Amazing.

And so today I’d like to humbly present a few little rules of action — just some small reminders, things I’ve found useful but by no means invented, common-sense stuff that is often not common enough.

1. Don’t overthink. Too much thinking often results in getting stuck, in going in circles. Some thinking is good — it’s good to have a clear picture of where you’re going or why you’re doing this — but don’t get stuck thinking. Just do.
2. Just start. All the planning in the world will get you nowhere. You need to take that first step, no matter how small or how shaky. My rule for motivating myself to run is: Just lace up your shoes and get out the door. The rest takes care of itself.
3. Forget perfection. Perfectionism is the enemy of action. Kill it, immediately. You can’t let perfect stop you from doing. You can turn a bad draft into a good one, but you can’t turn no draft into a good draft. So get going.
4. Don’t mistake motion for action. A common mistake. A fury of activity doesn’t mean you’re doing anything. When you find yourself moving too quickly, doing too many things at once, this is a good reminder to stop. Slow down. Focus.
5. Focus on the important actions. Clear the distractions. Pick the one most important thing you must do today, and focus on that. Exclusively. When you’re done with that, repeat the process.
6. Move slowly, consciously. Be deliberate. Action doesn’t need to be done fast. In fact, that often leads to mistakes, and while perfection isn’t at all necessary, neither is making a ridiculous amount of mistakes that could be avoided with a bit of consciousness.
7. Take small steps. Biting off more than you can chew will kill the action. Maybe because of choking, I dunno. But small steps always works. Little tiny blows that will eventually break down that mountain. And each step is a victory, that will compel you to further victories.
8. Negative thinking gets you nowhere. Seriously, stop doing that. Self doubt? The urge to quit? Telling yourself that it’s OK to be distracted and that you can always get to it later? Squash those thoughts. Well, OK, you can be distracted for a little bit, but you get the idea. Positive thinking, as corny as it sounds, really works. It’s self-talk, and what we tell ourselves has a funny habit of turning into reality.
9. Meetings aren’t action. This is a common mistake in management. They hold meetings to get things done. Meetings, unfortunately, almost always get in the way of actual doing. Stop holding those meetings!
10. Talking (usually) isn’t action. Well, unless the action you need to take is a presentation or speech or something. Or you’re a television broadcaster. But usually, talking is just talking. Communication is necessary, but don’t mistake it for actual action.
11. Planning isn’t action. Sure, you need to plan. Do it, so you’re clear about what you’re doing. Just do it quickly, and get to the actual action as quickly as you can.
12. Reading about it isn’t action. You’re reading an article about action. Ironic, I know. But let this be the last one. Now get to work!
13. Sometimes, inaction is better. This might be the most ironic thing on the list, but really, if you find yourself spinning your wheels, or you find you’re doing more harm than good, rethink whether the action is even necessary. Or better yet, do this from the beginning — is it necessary? Only do the action if it is.

“Talk doesn’t cook rice.” – Chinese Proverb

Quote

It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out where the strong man stumbled, or where a doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, and who comes up short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause. The man who at best knows the triumph of high achievement and who at worst, if he fails, fails while daring greatly, so that his place will never be with those cold timid souls who never knew victory or defeat.

– Teddy Roosevelt

Why companies die

1. Gravity wins. In business as in biology, big things grow slower. Over time, it takes more and more effort to produce less and less in the way of incremental returns.

2. Strategies die. Clever strategies get replicated,venerable strategies get supplanted, and profitable strategies get eviscerated.

3. Change happens. Most businesses were never built to change—they were built to do one thing exceedingly well and highly efficiently—forever. That’s why entire industries can get caught out by change.

Two ways to hire (and a wrong way)

The wrong way first: interview someone for an hour. If you like them, have them interview three or four other people in your organization for an hour each.
You’ve invested five hours of your team’s time, but really you only were looking for approval, because you’d already decided you liked the person enough to work with them for years.
All the evidence we’ve seen shows that this is a lousy predictor of future performance. And, let’s tell the truth… if the first three people love the guy, are you really going to let the fourth, junior person veto him? Or is it just an annoying courtesy?
There are two approaches you can use as an alternative.
First, you can work with someone for months before you offer them a job. Your pool is smaller (freelancers, joint venture partners, interns) but the exposure to how they work is spectacularly different. You don’t get the thrill of finding a pearl in the oyster, the ‘wow, I found the most incredible hire!’ bragging rights. Instead, you get exactly what you expect. Organizing for this sort of hiring isn’t particularly difficult, particularly in a down economy. Not surprisingly, I’ve had 100% success doing this.
Second, and with some controversy, you can admit that an hour interview is actually a five minute sniff test followed by 55 minutes of wasted time, multiplied by four colleagues. Tell the truth and switch to five minute interviews.
If you do five minute initial interviews, you can interview 12 times as many people for each job opening. This initial filtering takes precisely as much time as your wasted one-hour approach, but dramatically increases the chance you’ll find someone you actually have good pheromone and body language connection with. After the screening, I can only encourage you to do the projects, reference checks and other serious diligence you’re probably too exhausted to do after spending all those hours with one person…
This process takes a lot of work, but it definitely works. If you can interview 60 people in a day or two and then have the three best fits do projects, presentations and freelance work for you, you’re way ahead of a company that interviewed only three people and fell in love with one.

Enormity

Enormity doesn’t mean really enormous. It means incredibly horrible.

The problem with enormity in marketing is that it doesn’t work. Enormity should pull at our heartstrings, but it usually shuts us down.
Show us too many sick kids, unfair imprisonments or burned bodies and you won’t get a bigger donation, you’ll just get averted eyes.
If you’ve got a small, fixable problem, people will rush to help, because people like to be on the winning side, take credit and do something that worked. If you’ve got a generational problem, something that is going to take herculean effort and even then probably won’t pan out, we’re going to move on in search of something smaller.
Not fair, but true.

Square one is underrated

Perhaps the worst outcome most people can imagine when a project stutters is having to go, ‘all the way back to square one.’
Apparently, square one is an unhappy place, and far away, too.
Hey, if you’re lost, if you’ve gone down the wrong road, it doesn’t make sense to speed up and keep racing down the wrong road. Instead, the smart thing is to go back to the last spot you were in where you had a chance to find the right road and start from there.
Square one: nicer than people expect.