• Building a workforce of one

    As I have seen our company grow, I have been thinking a lot about the best way to serve its employees.  One lesson that I have repeatedly learned is that people are very complex and different.  I am continually taught new lessons about how what works for one person does not work for another.  Every effort I have made to treat a group of different people the same way has backfired.  I am slowly, but surely, beginning to respect the complexity of human beings.

    So, as I got to reading about this topic, I realized that a lot of really smart people have thought much more about this than I have.  I came across a really interesting book titled “Workforce of One” by Susan Cantrell and David Smith.  I am pretty excited because a lot of ideas in it really resonate with me.

    What is a Workforce of One about?

    The core premise of Workforce of One is that you treat your workforce like your customer.  For executives and leaders, your employees really are your customers.  And just like we have been doing in e-commerce for years now, the key to success is to segment your customers so that you can provide a personalized experience that strives to give everyone what they really want.

    There are six core trends that drive the need for customization for the talent management organization:

    • Technology enables customization of HR and People practices in way that wasn’t really possible or viable before recently.
    • Organizations are beginning to finally see their employees as their customers.  And customers are used to getting customized experiences.
    • Knowledge work is changing the face of HR.  The uniformity has been taken out of work by the knowledge work era.  A recent study showed that 34% of the labor force is made up of knowledge workers!
    • The C-Suite cares more about the performance of individuals now than ever before.  Talent management matters because the aggregate ‘people performance’ drives huge results.
    • Competition for talent is getting tougher every single day.
    • Todays highly diverse workforce is only getting more diverse.

    Ok, Ok, I get it.  How do I customize my People practices?

    There are four core ways that an organization can customize its people practices.

    • Segmenting the workforce: this is about providing a variety of different practices that are customized for specific groups of individuals.
    • Offer modular choices: this is about creating a uniform set of choices that employees can each choose from.
    • Define broad and simple rules: this is about simple rules and boundaries that can be interpreted in different ways by individuals.
    • Foster employee-defined personalization: individuals can help define their own personalized people practices.

    The core takeaway for me is that you really have to customize your approach to the dynamics of your workplace.  A segmentation scheme that works in one organization may not work in another.  Furthermore, you should only start thinking about this kind of personalization when your organization is above a certain size (I’d say it starts getting relevant at about 200).  Finally. you have be sure that you are staying within the confines of the law, particularly if you are segmenting your workforce.

    Why should I care?

    Driving a customized approach to people practices is more critical today than ever.   In today’s knowledge work economy, people really are your largest asset.  If other companies start to offer these kinds of customized benefits, you are already one step behind.  As your organization grows, you will find that a one-size-fits-all strategy simply won’t be good enough.  (That’s what I am learning more about every single day.)

  • Hedonistic pricing and the problem of shared cost..

    I was reading this great blog post about the problems with estimating business value by Mike Cohn, and found that it identified a problem that has been nascent in my mind for a little while now.

    I won’t summarize the whole blog post here (you should just go read it!), but I will talk about how it gets me to thinking.

    We’ve recently started our company-wide steering committee process, and I have had a hard time deciding how fine or coarse-grained we should get when we make the relative priority tradeoff decisions.

    One of the values of getting fine-grained is that you can, theoretically, maximize ROI.  You can identify the lowest-hanging fruit by getting to the user story level.  Instead of looking at a large grouping of stories, which may have varying levels of importance to the business, you can look at the stories one-by-one and decide which ones are the most relevant right now (particularly based on their level of effort.)

    The problem with this approach, however, is that this approach can be more complex than it seems in practice.  The core reason is shared costing.  There is often times architectural work that is shared across multiple stories.  Or, there is work that can be combined and will take less time than if done separately.  One example we’ve thought about recently is our checkout system and our return system.  It’s probably more important to us to tackle the checkout enhancements.  But, if we combine the checkout and the returns in one initiative, then we can tackle much of the architecture at once, and it will probably take us 60% of the effort that it would if we did it separately.

    How do we take that into account at the ‘steering committee’ level?  I think the answer is that we don’t.  There are too many complex tradeoffs that exist like this when you get to the user story level.  I think we are better served at the epic level.

    I’ll experiment more soon and report back!

  • How to successfully integrate into a new company

    New team-members are not created equal

    I’ve had the opportunity to evaluate and hire around thirty very talented people in the last few months, and it has been a pretty eye-opening experience for a lot of reasons.  Perhaps the most interesting reason is the varying outcomes I have seen from all these new employees.  I have seen some new employees do a fantastic job of integrating themselves with the culture and the team, and I’ve seen others crash and burn.

    It got me to thinking, “what is it that makes certain new people successful in an organization and others not-so-successful?”  If there are certain attitudes and behaviors that drive good outcomes for a new team-member, I’d like to know what they are.  This is especially interesting because I find that some team members who I am excited about during hiring/evaluation process actually don’t do so well in their first 30-90 days.

    So, I’d like to better understand what works and what doesn’t.  That way, I can try to help coach new employees in that direction.   I’ll establish a working list here, and try to add to it as I learn more.

    Things you should do when you join a new organization

    • Respect how the organization got to where it is. The most successful employee don’t just walk in guns ‘ablazing.  Instead, they seek to understand how the organization got to where it is now, and what things have been successful or not-so-successful in the past.
    • Assume that past decisions were made for a good reason. I’ve seen a few new team-members actually disclaim that they ‘they are not here to question past decisions.’  They assume that people made the best decisions they could with the information they had.  This is a great way to start off on the right foot with a new team.  Of course, no organization is perfect, and all of them have skeletons in the closet.  But you are better served focusing on the future rather than the past.
    • Recognize that some of your great new ideas were probably discussed before. This is one of the most common mis-steps.  I see a lot of new people come to the table with ‘great new ideas’ that they assume no one has thought of before.  It’s great to be forward-thinking and to have new ideas, but it makes a lot more sense to first ask if folks have talked about things like this in the past, and what has been done until now.  (Most companies are not short on ideas… they are short on execution!)  If you don’t ask these questions, you look ignorant about the history of the organization and you look like you are trying to take the credit for ideas that people have already had for a long time.
    • Get to know people both personally and professionally. You cannot underestimate the importance of close personal connections in the workplace.  You don’t have to be best friends with your co-workers, but you should make an effort to get to know them and what motivates them.  The more comfortable people are with you, the more likely they are to come to you when they need something.
    • Ask questions… rather than giving answers. This is more of a meta-point that covers a lot of the other points above.  But it’s a great rule to live by.  If you find yourself providing more answers than questions in your first month, you are almost certainly doing something wrong.  You have to seek to understand before you seek to be understood.  (Take it from Covey!)
    • Seek out a mentor. There is almost certainly someone in the organization who knows more about the brand and the culture than you do.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a strength.

    This topic is not only timely for me, I think its hugely important in any rapidly growing organization.  There are lots of new faces and there is a lot of uncertainty.  What I have found is that some of the brightest people have the least organizational savvy.  So if you think this advice doesn’t apply to you because you ‘smarter than that,’ I encourage you to think again.  No matter how smart you are, you are not going to be effective in an organization where you haven’t built trust and don’t have the ability to gain buy-in.

    Joining a new organization can be harder than most people think.  Hopefully some of this advice helps people on their way…

  • Why you should insist on taking naps…

    I read a great article by Tony Schwartz in the Harvard Business review about why companies should insist on their employees napping in the workplace.  Those of you that know me well can imagine my delight!

    I have been napping consistently for about 4 years now.  I make it a point to trade my lunches for a nap in the middle of the day, and I can’t feel better about it.  In fact, it’s gotten so routine that I don’t really even need to look at the clock to know that it’s nap time.

    Anyway, the short of the story is that I can’t say enough in the way of good things about it.  I feel like I get two days for the price of one.  (As someone who starts working at between 4:30am and 6am, I sort of do.)  I don’t have any afternoon slumps to deal with.  I am able to be high-intensity the whole day.  I also feel much better when I get home in the evenings.  Instead of just wanting to veg out and do nothing, I at least have the energy to read interesting books and articles.

    Anyway, over the years, I have gotten various levels of pushback and scepticism about my napping.  I’ve responded with a simple rule: “I don’t pretend to know enough about everyone else to prescribe what they should do to perform their best, but I support their decisions, provided they are within reason.”  I believe that we are all adults here (at the workplace), and that we can each figure out what is best for us.  I expect the same respect from others in the workplace.

    So I never really tried to convince folks that napping is for them too.  Mostly because I don’t know if it will work for other folks as well as it does for me.  I also don’t want to come across as the crazy ‘nap pusher.’

    But upon reading Tony’s article, I have to say that there is some really compelling evidence out there to support napping.  The research seems to align with the feelings I have gotten from napping, so it seems that at least some people out there get positive benefits too.

    I suggest you read Tony’s article .. I won’t spoil it for you!

  • A culture of innovation

    I’ve thought a lot lately about innovation and creation.  There are lots of ways that we can try to improve our total creative quality and output as an organization.  The first, and most obvious choice, is to try and find and surround ourselves with innovative people.   We’ve gone from a group of four very talented folks in our office to over fifty in the last four months.  Check.  Now what?

    Now we have to think about fostering an environment that enables people to be creative and innovative.  What I have come to find is that talking about culture is really easy.  But, doing anything about culture is MUCH harder.  Actually trying to drive cultural change or evolution can be very trying work, and it often doesn’t feel like any progress is being made.

    So I have done some research and thinking about the best way to create a culture of innovation, and here’s what I’ve got so far.  You have to:

    1. Meet people’s needs: People can’t actually start thinking about creating great stuff if they are distracted with basic needs.  I think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a great place to start.  Some times their needs are easier to meet than you think.  Try asking them what they need to perform their best.
    2. Teach people how to be creative and rigorous: Creativity isn’t just about sitting in a room and coming up with great ideas.  One must validate her ideas with real users, and actually be willing to disprove her own hypotheses.  People need to be taught how to combine creativity and rigor.  Not sure the best way to teach this yet, but Steve Blank’s Customer Development is a good start.
    3. Allow people to be passionate: Don’t deploy people against boring stuff if they are known to be passionate about something else.  People who are encouraged to follow whatever they are passionate almost always produce better results.  If what they are passionate about is not relevant to where you are going, consider that before you bring them on board!
    4. Bring meaning to the work: This is related to item #1, but is important to mention in it’s own right.  “Differentiating on meaning” is the way of the future.  Smart people can make money anywhere.  You have to be sure that the problem you are solving actually creates meaning for people, and somehow makes the world a better place.  Without an impetus for innovation, why would anyone care?   Bo Peabody describes this best when he says that you should build an organization that is “fundamentally innovative, morally compelling, and philosophically positive.”
    5. Provide the time: Great innovation doesn’t come easily or quickly.  You have to give folks the time to explore and discover the creative context for why they are doing what they are doing.  They also need the time to come up with multiple approaches to the problem, so they can validate and understand which parts of each solution are best.
    6. Let people recharge: If people don’t have time to ‘get away’ from the problem for a while, they’ll never effectively hit the ‘incubation’ stage of the creative process.  This doesn’t have to come at the expense of being agile about the approach.  A person or group can still be high velocity and drive incremental value, but you can’t expect their product to start getting good immediately.

    So, why does this matter?  Well, simply put: people are hard enough to manage when you are not expecting them to innovate or be creative.  Adding this (very high) expectation to the mix is no small matter.  Doing so without creating the right environment for success is a recipe for disappointment.

    Also, take it from someone who is learning the hard way: focus on the culture early, before it gets too far ahead of you.  It’s a lot harder to play catch-up and drive cultural change than it is to be thoughtful about it from day one!

  • The five stages of creativity are not just for writers…

    I said in my recent post that creativity an innovation are the key factors of success for entrepreneurial businesses, going forward.  I still mean that.  And the more I think about it, the more I have come to believe that it’s actually true.  If you want to succeed in the incredibly tough marketplace of high-growth technology start-ups, you have to out-innovate your competition.

    Since I have come to this realization, I have been hunting for ways to get better at being creative.  Creativity is a fuzzy concept that is easy to talk about, but harder to define (and succeed at) in practice.  Also, not all of us are born with that ‘creative flare’ that so many innovators are known for.

    As I read and research more about the topic, I find myself surprised at how much is written about creativity and the ‘creative process.’  Perhaps my most interesting recent discovery is about the stages of creative thinking.  There are generally accepted stages of creativity that most writers seem to know (but that I have never heard of until now!)

    After discovering these five stages of creativity, I find myself impressed by how intuitive they seem, and by how broad reaching they are. I suspect that these phases of creative thinking are not only applicable to writers, but are probably useful to many entrepreneurs and innovators as well.

    Without further ado, here they are:

    1. First Insight — This is the act of finding or formulating the initial problem or topic that you are interested in.  This in itself is challenging.  Einstein put it better than I ever could:

    “To raise new questions, new possiblities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires a creative imaginiation and marke the real advances in science.”

    Too true.  I find that often times, good business ideas come from being stuck on ‘your own problem.’  A lot of innovators end up ‘scratching their own itch’ because no one else had done so already.
    2. Saturation — After this problem area has been discovered, the goal is to get as much data as you possibly can from a variety of sources.  This aligns very well with the kind of market and product research I have done in the past.  It’s about talking to real users, customers, and even people ancillary to the space you are thinking about.

    The secret here is to discover without an agenda.  You want the ideas to roll around in your head in the beginning.  You don’t want to be trying to find an answer too soon.

    3. Incubation — This part may be counter-intuitive to some, but the idea is that you want to let your subconscious mind start attacking the problem.  The secret here is to get away from the problem.  How you do this is non-trivial.  Each person is different, so you have to find the way that’s best for you.

    4. Illumination — This is the eureka moment.  Basically, as your subconscious mind attacks the problem from all angles, it will eventually find a solution that excites you.  You’ll know it when you feel it!

    5. Verification
    — Now you have to vet out the idea.  This is likely to be the part that takes the most effort.  Further, this is the part where I am guessing most entrepreneurs fall by the way-side.  They either don’t have the time, energy, or follow-through to actually see this phase through.  But those of us who actually succeed in building something find that the ‘journey of creation’ actually teaches us a lot.

    So there you have it!  Hopefully you find the five phases of creativity to be just as interesting as I do.  You might be asking yourself, “So why does this matter?”  Well, the stages of creativity matter because the ‘the battle of creativity’ is where the war of entrepreneurship is won or lost.   We entrepreneurs would be well-served by taking a page out of the book of innovative writers.

  • Design thinking

    Designers don’t just ‘throw sparkles.’

    In the last post, we explored some of the differences between entrepreneurship today and ten or so years ago.  As I think about how creativity and innovation seem underrated, it gets me to thinking about the way that design is perceived in most organizations.
    When most people think or talk about design, it seems that they think about the classic definition that was popular many years ago.  To me, this definition is more or less “the art of making things look pretty.”  Or, as one of my favorite colleagues likes to say, “throwing sparkles at things.”
    But, to me, design is no longer simply the art of making something look ‘pretty’ or ‘sparkly.’  It’s less about putting a good looking wrapper around something that already exists, and more about coming up with interfaces or products that solve new problems in a meaningful way.  In other words, I don’t think of designers as people who simply come into the picture after all of the innovation is done.  I think that designers are the very people who drive the innovation in the first place.

    What is design thinking?

    One of the exciting new topics I have begun to read about is called ‘design thinking.’  I recently read an article in the June 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review by the CEO and President of Ideo, Tim Brown. It was a fantastic outline of what design thinking is all about.  Here’s what I learned:
    You don’t have to be a designer to employ design thinking.  It’s just a structured approach to creating innovative and effective solutions to problems.  In this way, anyone can be a designer of new products or services.

    The Characteristics of a Design thinker

    Most effective design thinkers who have pioneered the creation of new products and services seem to exhibit some core characteristics:
    • Empathy: This is about taking a people-first approach.  You must work to put yourself in the shoes of others.  You have to think through solutions from multiple perspectives, and be willing to observe the world in minute detail.
    • Integrative thinking: This is about avoiding the very typical “either or” thinking of tradeoffs in design problems.  You want to embrace the contradictory aspects of a challenging problem.  The secret is to try to eliminate tradeoffs by achieving a solution that tackles “both A and B” as opposed to “either A or B.”
    • Optimism: Most worthy design problems are really hard to solve.  You have to assume that a ‘best approach’ really does exist, no matter how hard it might be to find.
    • Experimentalism: You have to be willing to explore constraints creatively, and to push boundaries as necessary.  Instead of just trying to speculate your way into the best answer, you’ll want to try multiple options (perhaps all at once) to figure out what really works.
    • Collaboration: Most great products are not the brainchild of a lone creative genius.  Instead, they are born through the clash of perspectives of people who come from different disciplines.  You have to be willing to seek out and embrace that kind of conflict.

    Why should you care about design thinking?

    Both my intuition and my experience seem to confirm that there really is something to this whole notion of ‘design thinking.’  It’s this kind of thinking that yields great outcomes.  Anyone who wants to create really great solutions to problems should try to embrace it.  Most importantly, you shouldn’t think of this kind of disciplined ‘innovation-focused’ thinking as something relegated only to designers in the back room.  It’s something that should be embraced from the CEO all the way down to the individual contributors who are building a product.