Comparing your inside to other people’s outside

I was just listening to Minnie Ingersol on Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders and all of a sudden two dots connected for me……Neither is revolutionary on their own, but recognizing the similarities of the two is at least new to me.

The first is facebook. I’m not much of a facebooker. Not merely because it feels to me more like personal marketing than genuine connection, but also because I much prefer the complex ideas and thoughts that my friends have.

Perhaps I am missing a sensitivity gene, but I don’t care about seeing my friends with their kids at the beach. I would love to hear about the wonder in their child’s eyes when she first played in the waves, but fbook is not so good with that type of subtlety.

So, what I get instead is a glossed up picture of their outside, with almost no insight into their messy interesting inside.

The second “dot” in this story is your current job vs. your possible next one. We are all aware of the messy inside at our current place of work including both its joys and its frustrations. Just as with any relationship, over time the challenging parts begin to grind on us more and more.

In contrast, when we go to interview, we read the new firm’s website, we read about them in the news, and we talk to their interviewers. Everything is very glossed up and exciting. We imagine a world without messiness where we can completely spread our wings.  Of course, we seek out the dirt too via our connections, glassdoor, twitter, wherever, but summarized dirt is not internalized in the same way as living it and feeling it.

In both cases we are comparing our own messy inside with someone else’s glossy outside. We should be careful about luring ourselves into thinking we are making an apples to apples comparison when we really are not.


Getting outside your comfort zone

comfort-zone-image-01I recently participated in a “Biggest Loser” weight competition.  Like most people I have some pounds to lose, but I’m not sure anyone would call me overweight.

I was successful at all the goals I set and felt great about the experience despite the discomfort I endured in the process.

I did it for a few reasons:

  1. To lose about 10lbs in order do achieve a more ideal weight.  I had been living at my previous weight for quite a long time (upwards of a decade) and I really wanted to shake it up
  2. To jumpstart training for a triathlon 3 months later
  3. I like to compete
  4. To experience something I had never tried before

Mostly due to #3, the experience was pretty intense.  And though I am not recommending that everyone get outside their comfort zone in this way, re-considering some of the ways that I had taken food and the way I relate to my body for granted was illuminating.

A few months ago I read a book called Living with a Seal all about an amateur athlete and entrepreneur who wanted to achieve a higher level of performance by getting a seal to train him.  It’s a very amusing light read….my most surprising takeaway (and the authors) is that the seal’s perspective can be applied to many aspects of life.

I am making this post within a business oriented blog because one of those applicable aspects is your business life.  If you are going to gain perspective and grow, you and your company need to have the capacity to examine issues/opportunities from a variety of angles.  Getting input from a broad set of people helps.  If those people are well rounded, complex people your analyses will be even better.

Are you continuing to grow?  Are you stopping to think about what is the important work that is not right in front of your face?  Are you challenging yourself and your business to explore outside of its comfort zone?

Take a few minutes and think about some sort of challenge that you could set for yourself where you are not certain of success because you’ve never tried something like that.  I guarantee you will learn a great deal in the process.


Reaching for the Stars

stars and mountaintopThere are several platitudes about goal setting that reference the stars and the moon:

  • – “Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star.”  has been attributed to Peale, Littrell, and Brown
  • – I have also heard “Reach for the stars and land on a mountaintop”

The two above are actually quite different.  One says to shoot for something really hard and maybe you will find you accomplish something even greater.  The other says to shoot for something impossibly hard and be satisfied with a smaller, but still significant accomplishment.

They are both recipes for failure.  They were coined at a time when there was much less data that we could track about our progress.  In both cases the resources are lined up in a different direction than they are moving…not good.

Think about if you had such a slice in golf that you had to line up at a 45degree angle to where you wanted to hit the ball.  Is it a better idea to continue with that approach or should you work to fix the slice?

Some of the damages that come from these philosophies include:

  1. miscommunication with stakeholders
  2. constant re-work of priorities
  3. demoralized staff

To be fair, there are positives:

  1. There is no risk of complacency or resting on laurels (unless the team starts to give up in despair)
  2. There are many decision points to decide which x of the >x is going to get accomplished
  3. There is tremendous pressure for efficiency in order to minimize the under-accomplishment.  Those efficiencies likely live on past the deadline

However, the above positives can still be realized without the extreme pressure of under-delivery that comes with an over-promise.  Thus, they are not worth the negatives.

Let’s examine each of the negatives…..

 Miscommunication with Stakeholders

There is a consulting adage of “Under promise and over deliver”.  This approach is the opposite of that.  You are telling people that you “want” to accomplish >x when you only have a historic or estimated capacity to reach x.

While stakeholders definitely want great things, they also want predictability.  The world is variable enough without starting off misaligned.

Alternatively, provide two sets of goals to your stakeholders: the realistic goals and the stretch goals.  Ensure that there is contingency built into your realistic goals so that if everything goes according to plan, you will be able to accomplish some of the stretch goals.

Constant re-work of priorities

When you are building plans that get you to a fixed deadline with >x accomplished and you then find yourself on a path towards x, you must constantly change that plan.  This requires significant overhead both for the people whose job it is to plan and organize, but also for the resources who are being communicated a different plan each week or month.

The three levers of resources, scope, and time will constantly be under pressure as you keep trying to squeeze >x into an x sized box.  If you don’t make the scope or resource changes, the deadline will be missed.

Demoralized Staff

Either your people were not invested in the first place (different problem) or they will now become less invested.  Nobody wants to sign-up for an impossible task unless they think somehow they can make it happen.

Most people want to be on the winning team.

If Candy Crush and Angry Birds have tought us anything is that many people are goal seekers.  They crave mini-accomplishments.  If your team is never hitting the goal, team members will start to seek their “success fix” elsewhere.


In this age of data abundance, you can accurately measure just about anything.  Do so.   Set goals that can be accomplished.  Don’t make them easy.  Everyone wants a challenge.  But, put the goal within reach so that your people, your organization, and your stakeholders can all feel like a success together.

How do you decide to set your goals against capacity?

Also posted on Linked Pulse if you prefer to comment there

Shark Tank Innovation

shark tankMedium to large sized organizations are always trying to find ways they can increase their innovation quotient.

Look no further than the Shark Tank TV show where entrepreneurs come to pitch their ideas and hopefully win investment.

The next time your organization is thinking about getting a department, a division, any portion of the firm together to share information etc…think about doing a “Shark Tank”.

  1. Break your people up into teams that each represent a nice segmentation of roles, depts, whatever you think will give them the tools, variety, and creativity they need.  The best size is probably 5-6 people per team
  2. Task each team with coming up with a creative effective idea for your dept, division, whatever.
  3. Give them a very limited time (maybe 3-4 hours) to discuss what their idea should be, work it out a bit, and come up with a pitch that includes cost vs. benefit.
  4. Build a team of sharks that includes both management and savvy/trusted non-management.  They will be the panel that reviews all the teams ideas
  5. Have the teams present (don’t allow management to present) for up to 10 minutes in front of everybody
  6. Allow for 5 mins of Q&A from the Sharks in-front of everybody.
  7. Do some online polling in waves after 4 or so have presented so that people remember which ones each of them are.
  8. Give the sharks the results of the polls, but let them pick the winner from among each wave.
  9. If the sharks want to negotiate with one of the teams to drop or add parts of the idea, they can.

After your get together is over, the winning team(s) should be given some additional time (maybe 20 hours) to continue enhancing and fleshing out their idea.  They should get an opportunity to pitch again in a more prepared fashion.  The shark tank panel should also be prepared this time around.  If you have enough teams in the second round, you may even want a third round.

Keep the full population of your original dept, division, full organization (whatever you started with) apprised of the progress.  Who did you pick and why?

A session like that will be fun for your team, will get their innovation juices flowing, will get each team of cross-functional employees to know each other well in order to build bridges across groups after the session, and will hopefully create a pipeline of possible projects for your org.

Keep a summary of each pitch along with the people involved and a link to any powerpoint or other images they presented.  You never know when a non-winning idea will spark a winning one outside of the Shark Tank “game”.

Post in the comments if you have done anything like this in your organization and whether it was successful.


Tag your tasks – Eliminate Static Hierarchy

Last year I wrote a post called “Microsoft Project doesn’t work“.  The headline is a bit sensational, but the sentiment is something I am going to explore further in this post.

Project management tools usually require the entry of tasks and all their accompanying data via hierarchies.  A group of tasks are made a subset of a parent task, which fits within a project, etc….  The end result is a single view hierarchy for a scope of work.

The problem with static hierarchies is that they are just one view of a complex world.  Another person in the exact same job as you, might see the structure/relationships differently.  Yet another person in a completely different role from you will almost definitely create different groupings and sub-structures for the tasks.  Over time, even YOU are likely to believe the task relationships aren’t quite right due to new information about the world changing around that structure.

Despite most project members’ mild buy-in to the initial work breakdown structure and despite the fact that almost all project plans become rapidly irrelevant, they are still the favored structure for project managers.

What if rather than grouping tasks and building a hierarchy, tasks are just tagged with keywords?   There are relatively sophisticated tools now for building views on top of those tags to show the work plan in the way that makes most sense to the viewer.  There could also be filters to take out extraneous (to that person) information and simple hyperlinks to view related sets of tasks.

There would still need to be dependencies between tasks, but those related tasks could be initially found through keyword searches and links could be established via collaborative project start-up sessions.  With dependencies established, individualized views could allow software to display specific gantt charts.

Avoiding the static hierarchy means one less artifact pinning down the original plan thereby giving more opportunity for the plan to stay ahead of the reality taking shape around it over time.

Does anyone know of any project management tools out there that work more like this?  I have not found them yet.

Brainstorming technique – Asking all the questions

Every time we have a new idea, it takes into account a wide range of assumptions that are based on our own personal background/experience.  Just because we have personal data that leads to an assumption, does not mean that assumption is correct.

There is a group brainstorming activity which does not seek answers or solutions.  Instead the process looks to define the scope of a particular space through exploring questions.  The process seeks to eliminate assumptions and take nothing for granted.

This is just the start of a strategic planning process, but it is a really important one to make everyone think broadly before starting to hone in on answering questions and solving problems that you feel are most pertinent for your idea.

Before you begin, you should lay out some very high-level goals and carve your idea space into a few sub-topics that you want to explore.  This works best if your facilitator also is versed in the topic you are discussing.

You will need the following materials

  • large 5″x8″ colored post-it notepads (at least one per attendee)
  • sharpee pens (at least 1 per attendee)
  • colored sticker dots (at least 20 per attendee)

Note: optionally you can hand different colored pads to different attendees if you are interested in visually understanding which people are asking what questions.  For example you might have Marketing folks and Management in the same room and it might be interesting to get a sense of the different perspectives.

For each sub-topic you will build a wall of questions:

  1. Using the pens on the pads, ask each of the attendees to begin writing down questions on that they feel are important to know the answers for in that topic area
  2. Pass each note up to the facilitator
  3. The facilitator will read each question and ask for clarification where appropriate
  4. Each question follows one of these paths
    • The facilitator asks for question to be modified or broken up etc… and then re-submitted.
    • Facilitator determines that a question is better suited for another sub-topic: writes that sub-topic on the note and puts it off to the side
    • Facilitator asks author if question is perhaps similar to one already on the wall.
    • Facilitator places that question on the wall grouped with other related questions when possible
  5. As each participant hears the questions being read, that is going to spark additional questions in their heads.  They should keep writing them down and passing them up as this happens.

You will find that the stack of questions waiting to be read may grow longer and shorter as the process continues.  Keep going while there is a steady flow of questions that are not repeating previous questions.

Now you are going to rate the questions via a process called dotmocracy

  1. each attendee gets X sticker dots.  X is any number you decide
  2. Attendees are allowed to place their dots on any of the notes on the wall
  3. They can place more than one dot and in fact as many as they like on any note.

There is nothing explicitly to do with the ranking of the questions.  There may be some that garner more votes because they are broader while others may receive less because they split votes with other similar ones.  The votes should just be used as one data point when using the questions to build a strategy.

Anyone used a process like this?  Parts you liked?  Parts you didn’t?

The Singularity

It is human nature to estimate based on a linear progression. In other words, we look back over the last x amount of time, consider how much progress has occurred and then just calculate based on that factor to determine how long whatever we are estimating will take.

But that is not the way that many things in our society change. In fact, many changes are happening at an exponential rate. The classic is the speed of computing which was predicted and has doubled every two years or so (Moore’s Law). Another good example is the speed of sequencing human DNA. 1/2 way to the deadline, they were only 2-3% complete, but because everything sped up so much, it was finished on time.

Because of these exponential curves, we tend to underestimate in our prediction of progress that will take place. The key is that each new level of progress achieved enables new types of change to take place. We are using what we newly develop to develop other new things that were not before possible.

Ray Kurzweil’s singularity premise is that we will not be satisfied with the speed of evolution and so we will enhance ourselves and our helpers more and more. We are already doing it with contact lenses and prostheses. Why is it such a stretch that we would start enhancing our brains or building external “brains” at some point?

Once that starts to happen, we have a very key element in the innovation process that is no longer constrained and this opens up even more opportunity for the speed of change. At some point (Kurzweil predicts 2029), we reach a speed and complexity that the “human” part of us cannot really understand and the human life form, as we know it today, essentially disappears. That is the singularity.

While the singularity is certainly too far away for business to care much at this point, exponential curves are all around us. If you can overcome the linear bias and use a faster predicted change rate to get out in front of something changing in your industry, you may well do better than your competitors. What will changes in other spaces enable for your business. Can you start planning for that now?

Disagree? Agree? Have a values/moral/ethical opinion?