05
Aug 14

Curiosity is your best weapon

Funny, I haven’t touched this blog in nine months, and I’ve returned to write about (almost) the same thing I wrote about last time; curiosity.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reviewing 8+ years of journals I’ve kept at IDEO, trying to figure out some of the things I’ve learned over the years. (BTW, first learning is that I need to write more.) There’s a lot in those journals for me. It’s most of my thirties. It’s having two kids. It’s traveling 6 continents. It’s stepping into some really hard problems with really smart people. I’m hoping to blog about it more in the coming weeks to make sense of it all.

I’m pretty amazed at how much the topic of curiosity keeps showing up. It’s a transformative attitude. The minute you’re heading down a dark path, it seems if you can flip the curiosity switch you kind of move from losing to learning. This quote stood out…

“May your frustration make your curious”

One of my mentors had found me at a moment where I was working with a team and things had not gone as planned. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I was pissed because the team wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Someone wasn’t doing their job. Someone wasn’t being collaborative. It was one of those moments where everyone else was the problem and if I could just figure out how to fix it, we could make progress. It was in this moment I had lost my way.

If only I could have taken off my frustrated glasses and put on a set of curious glasses, I could have found empathy for the people I was working with. I could try to see their world as they see it. When you’re wearing curious glasses you’re just trying to learn, you can reason and judge later, and creating that space for perspective is really powerful. In these moments you see new perspectives and realize often it’s you, not them that have misunderstood the problem or the situation.

Curiosity is important because our mental models often fail us. What we perceive of the world is often different that the actual. We miss nuance and details, we factor things incorrectly. Curiosity is also important because it’s playful; you’re looking forward and backward, playing with new ideas. True curoisty will toy with unimaginable things. 

Every since moments (which was a really shitty day), I’ve tried really hard to catch myself being frustrated, angry, bewildered, or sad and turn it into a moment of curiosity. It’s not running away from that emotion, it’s trying to use that moment as a stimulus to see a path forward I haven’t seen before. 


12
Aug 12

Timing Decisions (and Playing Ball)

One of my colleagues at work recently shared a really nice metaphor around decision making that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. He noted that the timing of a decision is almost as important as the decisions you make. He likened the timing of a decision to swinging a bat in baseball – swing to early or late and you’ll sacrifice control of the ball (or worse, strike out altogether). But strike at the right time, and you’ll have more influence on how things play out.

I tend to hate sports/business metaphors, but I love this one. I also love the deeper implications of the relationship between the pitcher and batter. The pitcher creates the conditions for decision, and the batter decides when (and if) they will act. Sometimes, opting out of a decision altogether is powerful and important moment.

It can be easy to confuse decisions for progress. We’ll all nod our head at this sentiment, but we behave differently. After all, we’ve learned that decisions equal progress, so it’s easy to assume lack of decisions equal lack of process. This is so inbred that we feel obligated to make decisions when sometimes we should wait. This becomes even more difficult when working in teams, because delaying decisions can create angst for others.

In big decision moments, it’s important to create space for situations to unfold. It’s also important to create an agreement within the team that you’re waiting to make a decision (as opposed to afraid to decide.) By creating this space, you’ll learn about the intentions and motivations of others, and new options that weren’t apparent will emerge. 

So, when you’re grappling with decisions that involve people and many moving pieces, think about when you should decide as much as what you’re deciding on. The risk of waiting will often be rewarded by the serendipity of new options. 


14
Jun 12

Start-ups, Skunkworks, and Your Next Big Product

New post up on the HBR blog here. Let me know what you think.


22
Mar 11

Burn Your Boats

I was inspired last week by my colleague Joe. He’s in the middle of a pretty fast-paced project that involves juggling lots of design, lots of research, lots of business modeling, and just the general overhead that comes with any effort.

One of the things Joe wanted most out of this project was to experiment with a lot of extreme digital prototyping; he knew the space well and realized this project would be a great place to try a few new things. He also knew that this prototyping was above and beyond what the team had to accomplish; this would be a stretch.

Knowing himself, Joe knew that if verbally committed and told everyone (including the client) about the prototypes the team intended to build; it would be harder to go back on their word. He knew his team was capable; he was just worried they wouldn’t get around to it. If he ran his mouth, he knew they would have to deliver. And with that, what once was a stretch goal became part of the project, and the team is in the middle of organizing and prioritizing to make it happen. It’s a very cool thing to see.

By making a verbal commitment, Joe had burned his boats. If he were on an expedition that had just found new land, he would have eliminated the possibility of ever going back home. After all, the best was to ensure progress forward is to eliminate the option of going backwards.

I think about many of the great people I’ve had the chance to work with over the years, and on most efforts the very best of them make a point of very publically burning their boats. They commit to designing and building what’s in front of them. The also create a common goal that can engage and solidify a team. The effort may fail, but these people never fail the effort.

These people aren’t looking over their shoulder for the next best opportunity. They aren’t constantly running their mouths about a “pivot”. They’re digging in, and they’re going to figure it out. There are always times when a team will need to reconsider things and alter course, but there’s value in committing and working towards the goal.

So, the next time you’re up against a big scary challenge, do yourself a favor, don’t start looking for the exit. Commit to what’s in front of you; take whatever measure you need to take advantage of your opportunity. Burn your boats, it may be just the motivation you need.


19
Dec 10

Curiosity, Confidence, and Inspiration

I was catching up with one of my colleagues the other day and the topic of leadership came up. She had been doing a lot of deep thinking in the area, and she was wondering how leadership might differ from generation to generation. She wasn’t being academic, she was trying to figure out what it means to attract, retain, and foster leaders given the rapid rate of change in world. She’s not alone, lots of people seem to be asking that same question.

At first, I was glazing over a little bit. The idea of ‘leaders of tomorrow’ is one of those phrases that’s been so co-opted by the business schools and business press of the world, it almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. But as the conversation continued, I started to realize just how massive of a challenge she was talking about.

The idea of leadership is a weird animal. It’s mostly internal personality characteristics that manifest themselves in significant ways. Good leaders see the world from a unique perspective, they get things done, they make people feel valuable. It’s easier to reflect that someone is a good leader, rather than project that they will be a good leader.

After a lot of thinking and conversations, I believe that what makes a ‘leader’ has to do with their levels of curiosity, confidence and inspiration. Of course there are lots of other characteristics at play, but those elements seem to be the three traits I see over and over that define people and how they become these strong leaders. There are many talents good leaders learn over time, these three feel a little more innate.

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06
Jul 10

Buying Culture

I’ve been really inspired by Amazon lately. They’re great at what they do, but I’m really charged-up by their recent acquisitions of Zappos and Woot! . Both companies are healthy and admirable, but from all accounts Amazon was mostly interested in them because they had a great company culture (which leads to great customer service, and from that a solid business.)

The thing that’s inspiring to me is that you rarely read about a company being bought because it has a great culture. Bankers and M&A people don’t really know how to value a company’s culture that well. And if you can’t value something, it’s hard to price it – everything gets messy in the valuation, so you usually a stick with things that are more numbers-oriented. Companies usually like to pay for things they can count: market share, channel access, IP, scarce resources, etc. Cisco is a great example. From the late-90’s to mid-00’s, Cisco was on a major buying spree to pick up any patents or technologies in their space. They usually bought technology cheaper than they thought they could build it, they rolled it into a product road map and slowly, consistently grew the orb.

That sort of acquisition strategy works great if your a tech company, but not if you’re an online retailer. There’s almost nothing you can do to force customers to come back to your site over and over except serve them better than anyone else can. Amazon gets this, and I think they also get that good service starts with strong culture. Tech companies buy other companies because many times they need some technology they coolant manage to build themselves. By that same logic, culture seems even harder to create (and maybe more valuable) than some of the most brilliant IP. Getting the right culture is like catching lightning in a bottle. It’s the right people at the right place at the right time. You can invest in R&D to build specific IP, but it’s almost impossible to invest with the same intention and build a great culture.

All of this thinking on company culture lead me to one last thought. If traditional retail was all about location, location, location (can your customers find you), and if the early days of the web were all about access, access, access (can you offer all the long tail of goods your consumer could possibly want), retailing on the web now is about personality, personality, personality (brands than connect deeply with how their customers think and feel). Let’s face it, if in three clicks or less we can find anything our hearts desire, isn’t the next frontier buying those things under terms that are personal to us? (Think Zappos and their shoe returns, Woot and their one-item-a-day geekfest, or Amazon and their Prime shipping).

As the internet gives us more and more options, we seem to create more and more fractions in an attempt to create meaning in this ever-expanding sea of access. That’s happening everywhere online; content, services, networks, you name it. Today, it seems perfectly normal to go to the same (online) store everyday just to check out the one item they’re selling at a discount. This sort of evolution can’t come from a well constructed sensical strategy that makes good business sense, it has to come from a company with personality and a culture that’s just crazy enough to try.


02
May 10

It’s the Law!

I’m fascinated by metrics and measurement. Ironically, I don’t care about the numbers, I’m riveted by how the act of measuring something causes people to act differently. You can see it all sorts of activities. Dieters obsess over calorie intake, businesses track growth measures, we’ve been watching how unemployment rates are tracking. In the past, Ryan’s written about Time To Last Contact, and I’ve mentioned measuring for experimentation – you get the idea. My colleague David Webster puts it well, he says ‘you get more of what you measure for’. By measuring something, you’re telegraphing to the organization it’s important and you’re inviting our competitive attitudes to optimize around whatever we’re following.

(People especially seem to love numbers that go up; The Dow, Twitter Followers, Facebook friends, salaries, and so on.)

None of this is really much of a revelation, but the idea is still significant. Measurement is the bridge that links innovation to execution. It’s how you understand if your good idea is actually good, and it’s how you’ll move from concept to constant.

Given all this, I was really interesting to learn about Goodharts Law (via Boing Boing.) It’s a little wordy, but it basically states that people pay attention to the things that are measured, and because of this extra attention things that are measured change. (That’s is basically more or less what I wrote earlier.) I have to admit, I’m sort of surprised that this maxim hasn’t surfaced sooner, since 60% of the business articles in the past five years seemed to have been about innovation and/or metrics.

So where do we go from here? Well for me, this all makes a pretty good case for being very careful how you design your measures – what you monitor, how you think about it, and how you share this with a larger audience. The small but important point is that no one really said measuring things makes them any better, it just gives them more attention. Where it goes from there is all a matter of design.

Measure the change you want to see – it’s the law.


10
Jan 10

The Perspective is the Strategy

So every time I drive anywhere in my car I have one continuing, consistent thought – I hate my GPS. I don’t hate it in a casual, mildly annoying way. I hate it in a deep, resentful, this-is-the-worst-UI-ever-manufactured sort of way. I hate the device not for the directions, but for the device experience. It’s poor, it’s clunky, and whoever built it never spent any time using it. I usually look at that little box hanging from a suction cup on my window and think, ‘mock me now, you’re days are over since Google released free GPS for the phone’.

It’s true, those GPS manufacturers are in a pretty bad place. TomTom, Garmin, and other GPS manufacturers had their share price free fall on Google’s free GPS announcement. Why would anyone pay for a device, if they could the same functionality in their phone for free?

I think there’s more than just paid vs. free. I think the difference lies in the difference in perspective a device company has from a service company. If you’re a device company your customer buys a ‘thing’. Once they buy that thing, they’re a cost to retain until they buy again; customer service, upgrades, anything. Garmin has changed nothing about my GPS since I bought it. In the three years we’ve owned that GPS Garmin has never evolved the experience. Sure they’ve fixed bugs, but I will never get a better experience until I buy another device.

It would be a completely different relationship if Garmin was a service company. A service mindset realizes that you only have a customer if you serve them. So beyond the service being free, Google will actually interact with the customers differently that Garmin. If I were to use a Google phone as a GPS, I have assurance that Google will constantly upgrade the service. They’ll be adding ads I’m sure, but I’d also expect them to improve screen flows and consistently refine the experience.

So when people talk about the dark days for physical GPS manufacturers, I don’t really think it’s a free vs. paid argument, I think it’s about how you serve your customer. I have a lot of confidence that if Garmin or any of those players really turned out a significantly better in-car GPS experience, they could hold on to their market share. That doesn’t mean adding photo albums, or fitness feaures…do you honestly think I’m going to go running with my car’s GPS? It means you have to be brilliant at the basics, that’s what people pay you for. Garmin sells a simple touchscreen device. They could deliver a software upgrade and overwhelm their entire customer base and make a big deal about it. If you’re a device company, you can’t see that. Upgrading the interface would just be foolish, you’ve already earned those customers. Something like that would just be a sunk cost.

Good luck guys. It’s going to be a long year.


12
Nov 09

Strategy is an Act of Design

Strategy is an act of design….You can’t analyze your way to real strategy. You have to create it from data, guts, empathy, creativity, and a little thin air.
– Roger Martin

I love this quote, (full article here). I don’t think good strategies are always an entirely linear and rational act. We post-rationalize things so great businesses feel like they were ordained by some higher power, but that’s not how the world actually works.


27
Oct 09

Third Moment of Truth?

I was in a client meeting today thinking about P&G’s fabled Moments of Truth. The ‘truths’ are marketing lingo for a few moments in the consumer experience where the consumer discovers a product and decided that product may be what they need, (first moment). Then, later, as the consumer uses the product they determine if the product actually delivers on the promises it has made to the consumer (second moment).

I’ve always liked the idea of these two moments working together, it’s kind of a nice reminder to not over-promise what you can offer. It’s also reinforces the importance of having continuity between your identity/packaging and your product. At one time or another, we’ve all been really excited to buy something only to be disappointed later with the results of what we’ve bought. In that case, the first moment was won, but the second was lost…you have to nail them both, I like this act of bringing things into harmony.

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