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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.

Bob Sutton’s 15 Beliefs:

  1. Sometimes the best management is no management at all — first do no harm!
  2. Indifference is as important as passion.
  3. In organizational life, you can have influence over others or you can have freedom from others, but you can’t have both at the same time.
  4. Saying smart things and giving smart answers are important. Learning to listen to others and to ask smart questions is more important.
  5. Learn how to fight as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong: It helps you develop strong opinions that are weakly held.
  6. You get what you expect from people. This is especially true when it comes to selfish behavior; unvarnished self-interest is a learned social norm, not an unwavering feature of human behavior.
  7. Getting a little power can turn you into an insensitive self-centered jerk.
  8. Avoid pompous jerks whenever possible. They not only can make you feel bad about yourself, chances are that you will eventually start acting like them.
  9. The best test of a person’s character is how he or she treats those with less power.
  10. The best single question for testing an organization’s character is: What happens when people make mistakes?
  11. The best people and organizations have the attitude of wisdom: The courage to act on what they know right now and the humility to change course when they find better evidence.
  12. The quest for management magic and breakthrough ideas is overrated; being a master of the obvious is underrate
  13. Err on the side of optimism and positive energy in all things.
  14. It is good to ask yourself, do I have enough? Do you really need more money, power, prestige, or stuf
  15. Jim Maloney is right: Work is an overrated activity

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

Upside vs. Downside

From Seth Godin’s blog:

How much of time, staffing and money does your organization spend on creating incredible experiences (vs. avoiding bad outcomes)?

At the hospital, it’s probably 5% on the upside (the doctor who puts in the stitches, say) and 95% on the downside (all the avoidance of infection or lawsuits, records to keep, forms to sign). Most of the people you interact with in a hospital aren’t there to help you get what you came for (to get better) they’re there to help you avoid getting worse. At an avant garde art show, on the other hand, perhaps 95% of the effort goes into creating and presenting shocking ideas, with just 5% devoted to keeping the place warm or avoiding falls and spills as you walk in.

Which is probably as it should be.

But what about you and your organization? As you get bigger and older, are you busy ensuring that a bad thing won’t happen that might upset your day, or are you aggressively investing in having a remarkable thing happen that will delight or move a customer?

A new restaurant might rely on fresh vegetables and whatever they can get at the market. The bigger, more established fast-food chain starts shipping in processed canned food. One is less reliable with bigger upside, the other—more dependable with less downside.

Here’s a rule that’s so inevitable that it’s almost a law: As an organization grows and succeeds, it sows the seeds of its own demise by getting boring. With more to lose and more people to lose it, meetings and policies become more about avoiding risk than providing joy.

Helping Teams Advance One Gemba at a Time

Most frontline teams in my organization are not used to being asked to improve their own process.  Like most organization in transition most improvement that has taken place in the organization in the past was management driven and usually owned and executed by outside experts like consultants and project managers.  As we transition into a system where teams are asked to be responsible for improving their processes every single day one of the most powerful tools management has is the gemba walk.   There are many reasons why the gemba walk is not only an important tool, but an essential tool in a Lean transformation.  Here are just a few:

  • Gemba walks are one of the most important methods for teaching management Lean.  It takes Lean out of the conceptual world and forces management to learn by doing. 
  • Gemba walks demonstrate a behavior change from management.  It shows that management is curious about the work and interested in seeing the real problems.   Early on they also demonstrate to the teams that everyone is in the change together.  Management is learning alongside the teams they are coaching.
  •  Gemba walks allow management to begin to understand the problems that they create and forces them to begin to take responsibility for solving the gaps in their management system.  They see firsthand the challenges created by unclear or too many priorities, silo thinking, narrow job classifications, etc.    
  • Gemba walks teach leaders how to set clear expectations and have the discipline to follow-up to see progress.  In order to do this effectively the manager must understand the content of the work; know how to see problems, and to know how far a team can improve over a set increment of time. 

In several post in the past I have talked about some of the advice I give leaders as the learn how to effectively lead gemba walks.  As my own experience has grown some of my thinking has advanced.  Here are a couple of tips that I hope help:

  • Gemba walks can only be effective if leaders are disciplined, consistent and organized.  This is why having management standard work is so important.  In our organization we create visual systems (Kamishibai boards) that track adherence to management system work to help reinforce this discipline.   These boards track the frequency, sequence and content of what should be checked during each gemba walk and clearly make visible that the walks are happening as scheduled.  As managers build these boards they need to determine how often they will visit each team (less frequently the higher you are in the organization), and then the board makes it transparent to the teams how often they can expect a visit thus reinforcing the management responsibility.
  • Early on it is important to have some coaching help during gemba walks.  It is nice to have a Sensei to go with you, but it is also effective to walk with a leader that has more experience then you do if a Sensei in not available.
  • During each walk a leader should ask the team a series of open ended questions to assess the current situation, challenge the current thinking and prepare the team for taking the next step.  If you are just getting starting it is very helpful to have a set of standard questions you always ask the team as well as a system to track notes from past gemba walks.  The leader should take the time to review their notes and prepare their questions so that they respect the time of the team.
  • Gemba walks and visual management go hand and hand.  Without visual systems gemba walks often end up being disorganized, not focused on data and worst of all they turn into PR visits or complaining sessions.  Gemba walks are probably the most important tool in helping set and maintain the expectation that teams make their processes visible.
  • Finally, at the end of each gemba walk the leader should summarize what they and the team has learned and then clearly define the follow-up items that the team and the leader need to resolve.  Often the due date will be during the next gemba.  This is the most powerful part of the gemba, because when done effectively it helps move the team to the next level of improvement and at the same time gives leadership credibility as the leaders solve some of the systems problems that get in the teams way.   In order to do this well a leader needs to have a system to track on follow up items.  If they ask a team to try x by y date the leader better show up to check or they will lose credibility quickly.  When they do show up to check on the follow up just like they said they would teams start to see that management is serious and they will invest the appropriate time in the improvement activities moving forward.  Something very important as teams begin to learn how to improve their own processes.

Truth in Advertising – Refreshing

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10 Reasons Why You’re Probably Going to Fail

Post on failure by Tony Morgan, “10 Reasons Why You’re Probably Going to Fail” is really worth sharing, so here is Tony’s list…

10 Reasons Why You’re Probably Going to Fail

  1. It’s not your passion. If it doesn’t make your heart beat fast or cause your mind to race when you’re trying to sleep, you’re probably doing the wrong thing.
  2. You don’t have a plan. You need a vision, and you need to identify specific steps to make that vision become reality. That includes a financial plan. (I happen to believe you need direction from God on this.)
  3. You’re waiting for it to be perfect. Test-drive it. Beta-test that new idea. You’ll fall into the trap of inaction if you think it has to be absolutely right from day one.
  4. You’re not willing to work hard. Everything worth pursuing in my life has involved discipline and perseverance.
  5. It’ll outgrow you. Keep learning. Keep growing. But more importantly, build a team of people including leaders that can be who you’re not.
  6. You’ve had success in the past. I’ve watched organizations hang on to a good idea for too long. Time passes. Momentum fades. It’s risky to let go of the past and jump on the next wave.
  7. You’re unwilling to stop doing something else. Complexity is easy. Simplicity takes discipline. You can’t build a healthy marriage if you’re unwilling to give up dating other women. Who/what do you need to stop dating?
  8. You won’t build a team of friends. Anyone can hire from a resume. You need to find people you want to share life with. In the long run, great relationships will get you out of bed in the morning.
  9. You won’t have the tough conversations. When breakdown happens (and it always does), someone needs to put on their big-boy pants and initiate the difficult conversation that leads to relational healing.
  10. You’re afraid of failure. When fear consumes you, it will cause you to do stupid things. You’ll let negativity distract you. You’ll embrace the known, and grow comfortable with mediocrity. The more often you fail, though, the more often you’ll find success.