Lean is wearing thin

One of the flawed themes of the 90s Internet Bubble was “traditional laws no longer apply.” Worrying about revenue was an old economy way of thinking. Back then, the conventional wisdom was that one could just buy their customers and way to success.

Today, it’s lean this, or lean that. Cut out everything that doesn’t matter is the prevailing conventional wisdom. Waste is to be avoided at all cost. All we need to erect today’s new empires is a used futon, a laptop, and some free wifi to grift. It’s reached to the point where even thinking is a frill and therefore a waste of time.

I get the value of some austerity, but I still believe you have to spend money to make money.

Business to business spending is integral to the economy. I may be in a shrinking minority, but I feel like Capitalism is at risk if you encourage stinginess at the same time you’re ostensibly trying to make money.

Before you DIY, think DBI

Want to reclaim a big chunk of your life? Then change your default settings.

Entrepreneurs seem to be set to DIY by default. We don’t bother to change it even when we know time is money. Not changing it though, leaves us vulnerable to worse traps later.

Last year my business, Idea Momentum, rolled out something new, a series of User Experience workshops. For years we’ve been doing them with clients and customers as part of a bigger engagement, but now we wanted to offer them at our own space.

Since we already had the workshop pieces figured out, we decided to focus on scheduling and registration. So of course, I decided we’d do those pieces ourselves. Sure it required more work, but it would be the only way to get things exactly how we wanted.

Six weeks of cussing and a few all-nighters later, we still couldn’t go live. Fed up, my partner asked, why didn’t we use Eventbrite? The only argument I had left was, “it’s not exactly what I had in mind.” Appropriately, she responded, “so what?!” An hour later, she had us up and running with Eventbrite.

In the end, something more insidious was happening. I didn’t think I was wasting time. I actually thought I was creating value. Unfortunately, it was for me and no one else. I had become my own customer. Like the lawyer who represents himself, I had a fool for a client.

Some things should be DIY, especially if they’re core to your business. Just remember to choose wisely, and don’t treat yourself like a free and infinite resource.

Meanwhile, the workshops are up and running. I have also gone back and changed my default settings. Instead of DIY, they’re now set to DBI – don’t be an idiot.

Always be closing

Godaddy, the gargantuan ISP, makes my skin crawl. Their smarmy marketing tactics really cheapen the Internet. Okay, I find that last comment pretty laughable too. I’ve known plenty of people who used them, but I felt like they didn’t know any better.

Recently, I became a customer. I needed an SSL certificate and their price was too hard to beat. So I signed up. Setting one of these things up is non-trivial, so I had to call customer service – something I hate doing. I have to admit their service was great. They were quick and helpful on the call, but their immediate follow-through impressed me most.

Something I have noticed with them in the month I’ve been their customer is they’re always trying to close a sale. Every email, phone call, correspondence – whatever touchpoint you can think of – they’re working it.

The irony is the thing that bugged me most about Godaddy is now the singular thing I respect about them. Funny thing, it works. I have actually taken them up on a couple offers.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not shilling for them. I confess I still feel pretty dirty using them. But as a business owner, I have got to hand it to them for just having their shit wired tight on this particular tactic.

Are your great ideas keeping your from failing?

Can you generate ten, twenty ideas at the drop of a hat in any situation? Do you like ambiguity and the challenge of messy problems? Do you like to riff off of other concepts? In a group, do feel like the only person who really gives a shit? Then you’re probably an ideas person. I should know, I’m one myself.

The image I created is pretty flattering, especially to those who identify with it. However, there’s a overlooked flip side. What happens when being an ideas person goes from being an asset to a liability? Sure, the only thing worse than too many ideas is having none at all. That hardly matters since both lead to the same dead end of atrophy.

The first step is recognizing when it’s time to stop generating ideas. The second isn’t to jump right into implementation. Instead, cherry pick the ideas you like best and start testing them. How you do this is really depends on the idea. I am going to work on future posts for this very topic.

Do a little soul searching too. Ask yourself whether this ability to generate lots of ideas is really just a defense mechanism for protecting your ego from failure, rejection, and criticism?

Being good at generating  a lot of ideas can get in the way of actually doing something. Over time, people will become less and less interested in hearing what you have to say.

It’s one thing to be clever, but the money is really in being resourceful. Resourceful people are good at coming up with ideas too. They just happen to be trying to figure out how to execute not just come up with concepts.

In the end, let implementation and results be the ultimate arbiter of greatness.

The Status Quo

A study from last year suggests many of us might not actually like creativity as much as we say we do. That should come as no surprise for anyone who has tried to push for change within their organization.  People talk a good game about creativity in the form of cliches, but their actions demonstrate otherwise.

Most of us like the promise of creativity and it’s potential outcomes, but we’re either worried or suspicious of the process. If you try to think about it from their perspective, it’s not unreasonable.

For those of us who like to push the envelope, upset the apple carts, and turn the world upside down, think about the following. Most of us only find creativity interesting when it’s new, like a puppy. Over time it’s novelty wears off and it’s just a dog. We still love the dog, but we were smitten with the puppy.

Ask yourself whether you’re trying to solve problems with the status quo, or just trying to express yourself. The former is the difference between creativity and innovation. The status quo is innovation’s rival. It’s probably the result of a prior innovation which took a lot of work and requires a lot of work to maintain.

Those who built and benefit from the status quo have a vested interests in it, even if it’s not getting the job done. The really innovative people in an organization are the ones pointing out  problems long before anyone else sees them, or is willing to acknowledge they could exist.

I’m not saying you should give up, even though it is an option, it’s just important to know what you’re up against. 

Pursuing something innovative for the sake of creative expression isn’t worth it. That might be what’s in the back of some people’s mind when they shoot down an idea. Anyone can have an idea, but somebody has to execute. If you don’t have ideas on how that will happen, or the impact on others, then don’t be surprised if they’re not as thrilled about the idea as you are. They might think your baby is ugly too.

What’s stifling innovation in large corporations

There’s a common lament about the lack of innovation coming out of large corporations. I don’t know why anyone is surprised. I can think of at least three non-trivial issues staring us in the face and they have to do with incentive and motivation.

Executive Compensation
It’s common sense, not socialism to be angry at the lopsided way people are compensated in big companies. Why in the world would anyone in their right mind do something new when the only people benefiting are those who are already making 10-20 times as much as me? Money is a powerful motivator for innovating. But if you look at many publicly traded companies, innovation isn’t rewarded. When it comes to money in big companies, them that got is them that gets. People in the C-Suite are outrageously compensated even when the overall company underperforms. If you were to do something innovative in a big company, there’s a good chance only a select few will reap the rewards, not including yourself of course.

A way to fix this problem would be for companies to put their money where their mouth is. If you actually want innovation, you need to reward the innovators within your organization the way you reward your managers. The other option would be to reward innovation, not cost cutting, at the highest level. Innovative leaders can inspire and motivate those beneath them to do the same.

In large companies, “the process” is the culture. And yet, process is the antithesis of innovation. It’s about standardizing and normalizing, i.e. ensuring consistent results. Process is meant to drive out uncertainty, ambiguity, and serendipity, all key innovation ingredients. Most large companies reward you for how well you follow a process paying little attention to the outcomes.

Entrepreneurial people within organizations find ways around the processes to get things done. This understandably makes some people nervous. Therefore, outsiders and deviators of the process are pariahs even if their intentions are good.

A way to fix this is to let those who want to be entrepreneurial have their say. Don’t immediately tell someone to drop their suggestion in the box. They know that’s meaningless. Instead of putting more process in place, allow for more conversations. Don’t just have meetings to check the status of projects. Meet to actually talk about ideas. Yes, those meetings may last more than an hour, but they could pay off later in less work.

Innovation within large organizations is something only a few people get to do. At cutting edge companies like Apple, only a select few are in a position to do something innovative. In fact, for the majority of people that work there, it’s preferred they keep their opinions on products to themselves. Having worked there, I found it very frustrating. Meanwhile, I can’t say it was always a bad thing. There was no shortage of armchair quarterbacks who thought they had the one great idea everyone should listen to.

Unfortunately, confining creativity and innovation to certain roles, people, or groups breeds contempt. After all, who wouldn’t want to be labeled innovative when you see how much the press fawns over them. The only difference between an innovative person, and everyone else is they have lots of ideas – good and bad – not just one silver bullet.

A potential fix is to make sure there is some cross pollination of people from different groups within your organization. When people who think they have a great idea get to interact with people who actually have lots of ideas, they see how much work it is to being innovative. They also see it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. There’s a lot to be said for people who can be effective operationally. Not everyone needs to be the mad genius.

Help yourself to help your customers

The other night our power went out around 9:30. There wasn’t a storm or anything. It was just raining. Everything went out, came back on a second later, and went out again.

Instead of calling ComEd (our local power company), I got on my iPhone and went to their website. It was there I discovered they have a SMS-based system for reporting outages. You simply text the word “OUT” to them and they immediately respond. In my case, it told me they were aware of the problem and 800 customers were also out. I received another text later estimating the problem to be fixed by 11:30pm.

I rarely have anything good to say about ComEd, but I’ll be talking this up to friends and family.

This simple feature, while very useful for customers, probably benefits ComEd more. Not only do they get to reduce the costs associated with staffing phone lines 24/7. They now have a secondary dispatching system that notifies them when and where the power is out.

I especially hate it when the power goes out at night. It’s not like you can go outside and find something else to do. I’m reasonable, I know the power goes out from time to time. I just need to know 1) it’s not the apocalypse and 2) someone is on it. This system does that.

Not every user-friendly thing your product or service does has to come from an altruistic place. Sometimes you can create more value for your organization and still make your customers happy.