Failing Fast Doesn’t Mean Giving Up

Failing fast is one of the most frequently used words in the modern knowledge based economy full of start-ups looking for the big hit. You read about how every entrepreneur needs to be able to pivot on the spot and come up with another idea if the first one doesn’t work. But how fast should you fail? Sometimes it even feels like failing is a badge of honor, but is failing really the only way to success? How should you understand it and transfer the lessons learned from failing fast into daily lives? And what happened to good old perseverance? Isn’t failing too fast, or giving up too early, limiting your chances of success?

Obviously there is a no easy formula to tell you when to give up and when to plough ahead. But there are questions you can ask yourself to make the right call. Let’s look at the whole decision making process.

Recognize failure in making

The key is to even recognize that something is not working. Sometimes it is easily measurable (for example revenue growth) but sometimes it is more subtle. The best way to recognize that things are not working out is to have a baseline plan you can compare to. Without a plan you cannot really say whether things are going well or not. The plan was to have one million in revenue at this time and we don’t even have a half of it. Failure in making.

Understand why

We know we have a problem and now the real question of “why”. Is it because our strategy is flawed, or the original plan was unrealistic, or the environment has changed, or other outside factors temporarily slowed us down, or we just didn’t execute well?

Most likely there is no obvious answer, otherwise life would be too easy. The best you can do is to eliminate various factors one by one leaving the “let’s give up and do something different” as the last option.

Tweak and persevere

If giving up is not the option then what is? Incremental tweaks (changes) and consistent focus on gathering feedback to see whether something works or not. This can be of course a tricky proposition for some situations. In other cases it can work nicely. For example, the industry standard when building websites, or do marketing is the so-called A/B testing. This allows you to change one variable (try a new idea) without changing the other aspects thus having feedback that really reflects just this one change and is not impacted too much by the overall environment.

This may not be a strategy applicable to your case but the thought behind is the same. If you change something and are looking for feedback make sure you are really measuring the impact of the change.

It is not only about your business, it is also about your career. Way too many people just give up too easily, have low patience, and leave their jobs before they had an opportunity to really succeed. At the same time just doing what you have always done hoping for a different outcome will be equally disastrous. The best strategy is to break down your job into different aspects and then tackle these one by one attempting small changes, recognizing small wins, improving your attitude and view of the world and eventually being really good at what you do while truly enjoying it. Read more in Ignore Your Dream… Do What You Are Good At.

This applies not just to your professional existence but to the rest of your life too. Imagine you are not happy with your life. What do you do? Chances are that not everything in your life is bad and if you attack one aspect of your life at a time you will eventually end up in a better place. Rather than saying “my life suck,” and give up. Or do something dramatic like leaving your life behind and moving to another country hoping for the best. Trust me, I’ve been there, it doesn’t work. Much better to change your life, one thing at a time, focus on the new and positive and before you know your whole life will be different. Mostly because your view of the world changed, but that is for another time.

Give second chances but timeframe them

Just be careful of the “one more chocolate and then I stop trap”. If you really believe strongly that the original approach is fine and it is just a matter of time before things turn around then so be it. I would argue that this decision should be based on real data and some external circumstances that irrefutably show that the reason for you not doing well today is gone. In that case let’s give it another shot but make it crystal clear to yourself and everyone involved what your expectation is. You need to be very specific and timeframe it: “We double down on what we do today and our expectation is that by the end of the year we will have 20% increase in sales.” When the end of the year comes and you haven’t reach your numbers there are no more excuses and you have to change! Under no circumstances should you say ”I see the trend, let’s give it another three months.” If you do that you get yourself trapped in a vicious cycle of excuses and postponing of what had to be done in the first place.

 

What does failing fast mean for you? Is it a strategy you would use? Or do you believe it is a disaster in making?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

You Are A Leader, Not A Messenger. Act Like It!

We live in a global, incredibly complex and fast paced world. In most organizations of bigger than small size you can see the complexity of interaction increasing with every new employee, every new product and every new customer. If you are a manager in such environment you may sooner or later find yourself in a position that your decisions are actually not yours to make. Or at least, you feel that way.

You can’t just add a new benefit for your team, you need to talk to HR and finance teams. You cannot just add a feature to your product, you need to talk to product management, marketing, sales, and customers. You cannot just set your own working hours as they depend on when the rest of your team or your customers are around. There are so many constrains that you feel you are no longer a manager but just a proxy for decisions made by someone else. Guess what, you and only you are responsible for this! You are responsible for your own actions and more importantly you are responsible for your own feelings.

To make things worse, your feelings, words and actions have a direct impact on your team. If you get to the habit of blaming others for your inability to make things happen it will reflect on the team spirit. “He doesn’t have the power to make decisions.” “Everything needs to be decided in HQ.” “We told them this won’t work and they don’t listen.” “Customers have no clue what they want.” Before you know it you have a culture of “us against them”, with “them” being another team, another department, location, or even customers.

So what can you do to change things and to make sure you and your team don’t end up with senseless negative self-talk that will prevent you from enjoying your work and deliver great results?

Not your decision? Then do your best to influence it

Very few decisions are yours only. Most of the time you need to cooperate with others to get their buy-in, acceptance and to ensure there are as few negative consequences as possible. If you want to feel like a king and make unilateral decisions impacting lives of all the peasants in your kingdom than bad news. You were born couple of hundred years too late.

Today, it is all about influence. You don’t need formal power to make things happen. Yes, it takes a bit more time and way more communication with way more people but ultimately you can “make decisions” through other people. I would suggest you check out these articles to get some tips and tricks on how to influence the environment around you: The Art Of Influencing Others – Lesson 1, Lesson 2, Lesson 3. So it is just for you to get comfortable with this mode of working.

Don’t be just a messenger but own the message

You should never communicate a message to your team unless you understand what is behind it and can present it as “our decision”. If you constantly talk to your team about “someone decided something and we have to live with it” then you are the one who is spoiling the mood in the team.

If you need to communicate to the team a decision that you don’t understand then talk to the actual decision maker to learn “why”. What is behind the decision and why it was done? Even if you disagree with the decision, the time to influence it was before it was made. Once decision is done, it is done. Now your job is to implement it.

When you learned “why” it is your job to present it to your team in a way that will make sense to them. Yes, it can be sometimes tricky since the context in which the original decision maker lives is very different from the context in which your team lives (eg. CEO versus engineers). But that is exactly why you are here. You are the translator, you are the sense maker, and you are the one who needs to lead your team to implement the decision and feel good about it.

“As a leader, the biggest value you bring to your team is helping them make sense of the world around them @GeekyLeader [Tweet this]

Spend your effort and focus on things you can change

And if you really want to make some decisions solely on your own, or you want to give your team this ability to simply decide something without the need to ask half of the planet for permission then consider what are the aspects of your job that are fully under your control. If you think about it you will most likely discover that there are tons of things that you can decide and in fact that you are deciding every day without even realizing it. Then focus your attention and the attention of your team on these. After a while you will see that the mood in the team improved even though the external circumstances are the same.

Human brain is a great help in this since we get more of those things that we focus on. I’m sure you heard the example with the yellow car. If I ask you right now how many yellow cars you saw over the last week when commuting to the office you might be hard pressed to remember more than a few (assuming the cabs in your city are not yellow). But since I just focused your attention on yellow cars you will tell me tomorrow that you counted ten yellow cars on your way home. More than you saw in the previous month. Must be some sort of yellow cars outbreak, right?

When you really think about it all these things boil down to two basic themes: communication and attitude. Communication will form how you are perceived externally by your team (so they trust you and follow you) and the rest of the stakeholders in whatever decision needs to be done (so you can properly influence things). Attitude or mindset is how you perceive your role internally (how you feel about your role, your impact and your successes and failures) and what you focus your attention on.

So next time when you start feeling hopeless and feeling that all the decisions are done for you, just think about how much it is “them” and how much it is “you”. Maybe this introspection will help you find a way how to have a good feeling, greater success and bigger impact on the world.

 

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader

Make your meeting count

Meetings. One of the most dreaded and wasteful activities in most organizations. At least, when they are not done right and don’t have the right focus. There are many types of meetings starting with presentations & training, workshops, all-hands, regular status meetings, quick stand-ups or decision making meetings. They fulfill also different purposes. Some are meant just to share information, some are meant to trigger discussion and some will provide a forum for making decisions. So what can you do to make these meetings painless, productive and really powerful? There are couple of basic rules that fit those needs most of the time.

Rules for truly productive meetings

  • Have a goal – and communicate it clearly in the invitation. You may be really explicit like “The goal of this meeting so to decide what we have for lunch today.” Having a goal keeps you focused and sets the expectations of the audience. It will also enable you to show at the end of the meeting that “it was successful because you reached the goal and decided that today we get chicken” and thus participants will feel good about the time spent.
  • Invite the right participants – and no one else. It is important to ensure that people on the meeting have a vested interest in the topics. What is the point of inviting Petr if we all know he doesn’t eat lunch?
  • Have an agenda – and send it out together with the key information in advance. It will allow everyone (including you) to prepare. It will also allow the participants to raise their hand in case of missing topics. “Attached to the invitation is a menu from our favorite restaurant, please read it before the meeting so you are prepared for the discussions.”
  • Time constrain the meeting – begin and end on time. Be mindful of everyone’s time. If meetings drag for longer than planned you will lose focus of attendees as they will be thinking about their next thing. “The meeting will be held on Tuesday at 10:00 and will finish 10:25.” It might be a good idea to allow people time to move from one meeting to another and thus don’t schedule for 1 hour or 30 minutes but rather for 45 or 25 minutes.
  • Prepare – do as much work ahead of the meeting as possible. Prepare the structure, the important questions, you may even draft an outline of the meeting notes and fill in the blanks during the meeting. Share any documents or powerpoint slides before the meeting so people can study them in advance and prepare their questions.
  • Focus – don’t get the meeting derailed by adding too many topics or getting into too much detail. If there is something to be discussed between limited number of participants then take it offline. “Guys I understand that some of you want to grab a beer after the lunch, please take it offline after the meeting.” And end every item with summary of the outcome to make sure everyone is clear on what was agreed.
  • Keep list of Action Items – and identify who is the owner of each of them. Meeting without a list of decisions made or things to do will feel like waste of time. Even in meetings that are purely informational you can provide participants with a task (for example to distribute the information to their teams) so they don’t forget the meeting ever happened when leaving the room.
  • Follow-up – send notes outlining any important decisions made and list of action items as a reminder for participants on what needs to be done. “Team, as we agreed we meet today at 11:00 in the restaurant and will get a chicken with rice.” You may want to get feedback from participants on how to improve future meetings.

Obviously not every meeting needs to follow this outline but the standard ones focused on sharing important information and making decisions should. For those coming from software development world you may want to consider adapting a concept from SCRUM called daily stand-up meeting also to activities not directly related to writing software. In this meeting the participants meet for no more than fifteen minutes to discuss briefly the work done, the work ahead, and the obstacles to remove. Participants do it while standing to force everyone to be brief in his or her input. It is very organized and focused event. When done regularly and the right way it brings enormous value to the team without wasting too much time.

Twitter type summary: “Meeting without goal, agenda, good preparation, focus, list of action items and follow-up is called coffee break.”

How do you run your meetings? Or did you found a way to get rid of them altogether?

Tough choice

I have recently faced couple of choices in my life that made me think about the way how we make decisions. What sort of decisions are easy to make? What decisions are difficult? How do you define a really tough choice?

Limited amount of decision-making energy

There are situations when I’m not really willing to make a conscious decision at all as I simply don’t care and just go with the flow or let someone else decide. When I look at the decision making process I believe that each of us has a certain capacity to make a decision. We make decisions all day long, most of them are small, trivial things like “What should I have for breakfast?” “Should I wear blue or white today?” When making these decisions we spend our decision making power.

Let me give you an example from my life that is a bit silly but I observed it pretty consistently in the way I act. I love yogurt. I love trying new things. Logically, I love trying new brands of yogurt. I have discovered that when I go shopping for food in the evening after the whole day in the office I usually spend couple of minutes looking at the myriad of choices, deciding what yogurt to buy and then buy the plain one. The same as the last time and the time before. I’m essentially not able to make decision! If I go shopping on Saturday morning I tend to buy one or two brands I haven’t tried before and the decision which one to pick comes really easy.

In these situations I have found that what works for me is to acknowledge this fact and just go with the intention to pick the first thing you see. Basically decide what you will do or chose even before you see the choices.

Base it on your values

When the decisions get bigger and they may have a profound impact on you, your life, lives of people around you it is a bit tricky as you don’t want to make a mistake. But even when faced with decisions whether to go right or left at the grand scale very few of them are really tough choices. What you usually do in such situations is to compare the options available to you. You check some metrics, try to see all the pros and cons and then one of them usually comes as a winner. The actual criteria used will come from your overall goal and value system. If you base your decision on your values, it makes it usually very simple. It also makes it very difficult to regret as you go with your values and with what your heart is telling you is the right choice.

Let me give you an example from recent media storm triggered by Marissa Mayer‘s decision to abolish working from home at Yahoo. If you would look at it from money saving or productivity perspective you may argue a long time, coming with various statistics that will swing the decision from one side to the other and back. If you look at it from perspective of your value system, values of your company and culture you have or trying to create the decision is suddenly not a decision at all. You see that only one option is the right one. So something that looks like a really tough choice and difficult decision to make, could very well be the most simple and straightforward thing in the universe. Of course, you have to live with consequences. The good news is that because the decision is based on your values it will give you the drive to get through all the consequences with enough power and speed to make it a success.

More data will not help

What do you do when all the options are really comparable even when you look at your value system? Well, if everything is really more or less comparable then just stop comparing and pick one! Doesn’t matter which one as both are fine and you are wasting your time trying to figure out which of these two fine decisions is finer. Don’t over-analyze, stop getting more data, just pick one, any one, flip a coin, and move on to spend your energy on other stuff. Having 80% of data is more than enough, in fact 60% is fine. More data very often make the decision harder and harder as you have to analyze more stuff, compare more things and you get to a point of being boiled alive with data unable to decide.

Twitter type summary: “Having more data will not make your decision easier. It will just require you to spend more decision-making energy.”

How do you make decisions in your life? Have you been in situation that you just cannot make up your mind? How did you overcome it?