Be a Lateral Thinker

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When we are buried in the details of our work, it’s hard to look around and see connections to worlds outside ourselves. We can be talking to the same people within our crowd, read the same blogs, and look at the world through a myopic lens.

Some of the big ideas of today such as taking software platforms, connectivity, mobile and cars can produce inventions like Lyft.

A company like Stripe took their expertise in coding and made connections into financial tech and banking. It was daunting, but rewarding as they brought their lateral thinking to the problem of making online payments easier.

If you straddle different worlds, know the culture and nuances of different segments, you can powerfully introduce solutions that connect the dots that might escape a specialist’s trained mind. Lateral thinking is value add in this increasingly complex and polarized world. There’s extreme efficiency and speed occurring on one end of the spectrum. On the other end, there’s high complexity which requires creative, consultative solutions.

Bringing outside, fresh perspectives can change the way a problem is solved.  If you are a lateral thinker, you can open up the conversation to new possibilities.

You can notice and exercise a few approaches in your work and interactions:

  • Be sure to play in different worlds deeply rather than invest fully into one area of work day in and day out.
  • Meet new and interesting people that think about their fields intensely. Ask great questions and learn.
  • Keep great notes and think of how new perspectives create new solutions for your problems. Test them out and see what comes of trying different approaches. Then share them to help others.

If you can connect the dots you become valuable to others that are conventional in their practice. Your contribution increases.

Think about your domains you invest in. How can they merge or collide in a way to create even more value?

The world is getting more efficient on the whole. But, the creativity and lateral thinking opportunity is there to be applied to multiply those efficiencies.

Don’t Do Grand Openings

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I don’t do grand openings. If you have an idea, skills and the hard work to persist, simply get your first customers and start serving them.

This idea that we are anything special out in the marketplace of hundreds of thousands of options is absurd. You have to earn that over time from learning, iterating and contributing.

Whether you actually contribute is yet to be determined and a celebration before it happens is bad manners.

Instead, when you are ready to be useful, how about:

  1. Developing a path for your customer to be successful. Get buy-in.
  2. Executing towards the plan.
  3. Communicating when things happen or when things change.

Then do it again and refine as you go.

I think you’ll use your energy and everyone’s attention in a much more productive way.

Collecting and Testing Mental Models

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Principles prevail in a world of chaos. Much of life is indeed chaos. I think the importance of collecting and testing your mental models – how you problem solve and approach the world – is critical to drive success.

The 80/20 rule can help you focus on what has the best payoffs.

Eliminating drain people can help you be free from drama and the downside of dysfunctional relationships.

The law of diminishing returns can keep you from wasting energy and time where marginal returns are the leftover.

These are tested tools that create results when practiced intensely and regularly.

Have a place to collect your mental models. Test them in the course of doing business. When they work, that positive reinforcement along with learning the nuances of each principle, can embed themselves as habits in your psyche and routines.

I like to write down thought processes and mental models I learn from books and people. I like to write blog articles of my learnings. I like to share what works to help others. These practices get me results.

Everyone operates from mental models. May are not intentional and miss out on magnifying the effects of focused outcome thinking. Some mental models have downside. Total hedonism, for example, has plenty of upside, but can also ruin ambition.

Perhaps your results are elusive because some of the things you know are not regularly practiced. Or if you are scattered and not getting the outcomes you want, a few focused practices could be the game changer.

Keep a notebook or use Keep to start tracking the mental models you learn and apply. It’s a simple practice that can quickly yield desirable outcomes.

Alignment as a $36M Running Value

The SaaS company WorkBoard announced it closed a Series B round for $23M to total out its fundraising to $36M to date. At this point with their revenues tripling year over year, they have market validation. With more complexity and faster growth, keeping the main thing the main thing is a core business challenge for many of today’s businesses. They are providing extreme value.

Even if you outline the steps and processes for your team, you don’t necessarily have alignment right away. That challenge of alignment is part of the continuous hard work of leadership. Having tools that align work with goals with strategic priorities is a giant help.

Business intelligence, Salesforce.com Dashboards, analytics and SOP’s are helpful tools to creating clarity on what needs to get done for team alignment. I think most managers have the responsibility to create clarity and then get alignment from their team members. It can be a grind. What’s in one person’s head as important may not necessarily be true for others on the team. That can create breakdowns or mediocre outputs.

Also, team members can be working on things that simply don’t matter or have much lower priorities.

Everyone I know that is growing their business has the problem of alignment and clarity. The problem is amplified by the speed of change and volume of information that clouds our thinking.

If you can be in the alignment business, which is largely the work today, it’s big money and opportunity. Knowing what to do, doing it well and doing it consistently with a team is often elusive.

We have plenty of knowledge, tools and connection. We need the leadership to make what we often know are important items work like a machine based on what we value as important.

Are you in the alignment business?

Minimize Your Digital Platforms

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We have a hard time appreciating what drag does to our lives and work. If you’re used to sifting through your junk to find your clothes, notebooks, gadgets or everything to help you in a day, the friction may be lost on you. It’s become a habit that’s comfortable and unnoticeable over time.

It’s easy to pick up a subscription or tool here and there. After all, software’s incremental cost of distribution is extremely low. So, freemium is a sensible model to attract and entice new users.

But, digital platforms still take up mental space. If you have data or partial use within many tools, the question of whether you are getting value, or much less, creating drag in your psyche, becomes a cost factor.

You only have so much attention.

You have very specific goals that truly matter to you.

It’s hard enough to focus and get your goals. Adding more things to manage in your life can affect your creativity, productivity and clarity. These are all critical to making ideas happen.

So, how about simply taking pause and conducting a digital audit:

  1. Write down the goals that matter for your success.
  2. Write down what digital tools help you get there.
  3. Write down all the tools you currently have beyond the ones that help you.
  4. Unsubscribe and get rid of the ones that don’t matter.
  5. Recommit to the platforms that truly get you results.

Consolidation, commitment and focus get you much more bang for the buck in terms of applying your attention.

We live in a world of too many options and distractions. Winning is less about having something novel and much more about executing with what matters and works.

These days I find I get a much better return by focusing and doubling down on what works in the world than sampling every option that comes my way.

Don’t Be Original

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The romantic idea of creating something innovative and new can get us sidetracked quickly in entrepreneurship. There are 28 million small businesses in the United States as of this writing. You are competing with all those businesses, minds and offerings. The likelihood of being original is difficult against such staggering numbers!

Think about how you buy. You likely buy the same groceries and try one here and there for kicks. You spend money at a lot of the same places – restaurants, gyms, haircuts, etc.

Heck, we largely have the same phones in our pockets. Could you invent a new phone the masses would buy?

Instead of seeking to be original, give people what they want. Be valuable. Be understood. Allow your message to be clear. Take what people want already and compete on being “cheap, fast or good.

You can build on viability and find where the innovations are while actually working hard to meet known expectations and needs.

There is definitely a place for inventors and pioneers. We need dreamers and challengers. But, you want to be around and be relevant. And that takes empathizing, observing and being industrious. Meeting people’s needs and building the conditions for doing business together are no small feat.

Giving people what they want places you in the game. Being good at giving people what they want is hard enough. Trying to invent or find people to want what you offer can be a relentless slog. Perhaps you can innovate, dream and be original in an art form. Do your business by meeting needs and being valuable in business. If you must act on your originality and dreaming, build a non-profit, perform art or give away your ideas in a whole other context. That might be the better mix for underwriting your ambitions.

Pick Two Types of Service

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The temptation for businesses, especially after they have success, is to overreach. You have the choice of price, quality and service as your focal points in the marketplace. But you can only have two. We are tempted to be all three. But we live in a world of natural trade-offs.

Part of being in business is knowing what you are committed to and will deliver to your customers. You can go broke fast when you muddy the water with perfectionism.

If you are good and fast, but not cheap, then expect to turn away prospective customers that are not a match. It’s not a fit for what you are about. You can wait patiently for the people that will come your way that want what you are offering.

If you are in the business of being fast and cheap, keep that habit, message and approach day in and day out. There are plenty of people that are looking for your offering and can live without good. It’s good enough.

I know restaurant owners that own two types of restaurants. One is fast and cheap. They have a steady flow of traffic. It’s a volume game.

The other restaurant looks nothing like the first. It is fast and good.

They don’t comingle the two concepts. They are different businesses with different patrons.

Perhaps you want to get bigger after you see successes. How about focusing on leaning in further to your success and be better instead. Deeper focus and commitment to the two service items that make you who you are will go a long way towards growing your business.

What two are you? How can you get clearer and more committed?

The Purpose of an Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs are heroes in our society. They fail for the rest of us. ~ Nassim Taleb

Yes, entrepreneurs are indeed heroes. Ultimately, entrepreneurs are about initiative and responsibility for risk.

However, at a fundamental level, entrepreneurs are problem solvers. They own the difficult problems others are reluctant to carry. There are a sea of ambiguous problems that entrepreneurs solve:

  • Raising money
  • Making payroll
  • Securing property deals
  • Making deals
  • Collecting
  • Creating
  • Driving awareness
  • Protecting assets
  • Managing difficult people
  • Upholding a reputation

When you decide to start or grow a business, the challenges will be endless. Your plans will meet adversity. People won’t play along. Things can get difficult quick.

Ultimately, your ability to solve problems is what creates progress in the midst of chaos.

Here’s what is important for the journey:

  1. Lead yourself first. Establish health routines. Take care of your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual self. Every day without skipping. You need to be dialed in and ready for problems with creativity and stamina.
  2. Always be growing. You need a varied amount of skills that are largely dynamic, perhaps non-descript. Learn to be adept with people. Take care of details. Manage sales and projects.
  3. Be a master recruiter. A bad hire will send your business completely sideways. Hire slowly and fire quickly. Don’t rationalize.
  4. Always be clear. Your clarity matters more than everyone else’s. It also keeps you going towards a goal with perseverance and energy. This is a continuous process.
  5. Create systems. Systems keep your output consistent. They are not flippant or inconsistent. You need people systems, sales systems, personal systems and financial systems.

In the end, an entrepreneur knows they are in the business of problem solving. If you’re not welcoming or anticipating problems, then you won’t make it as an entrepreneur.

It’s a heroic, and many times, thankless journey. But the rewards are immense.

How to Drive Clarity

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Are you doing what you are supposed to be doing? Is the work you have been doing for many years as relevant today, or are you having to unlearn and reinvent?

I think that effort and working hard are relatively natural for many driven and successful people that I know. The hard part is the paradox of success. Once you have  achieved success, there are new, ambiguous horizons to pursue. It is unending, and in a sense, overwhelming.

What do you do to get clarity?

Well, one thing for sure is to heed Marie Forleo’s insight, “Clarity comes from engagement not thought.”

You can’t get clear by sitting and thinking. You have to engage the world around you. You have to be fully present in the moment, and listen to your intuition and heart about what you desire and align with.

The world provides feedback continually, and when you tune into how you respond – what you like, dislike or are attracted to – you gain clues on where to put your energy towards next endeavors.

Perhaps you have hit a jackpot. Or you may have finished a giant project. The temptation is to rest and enjoy downtime. But, a void comes quickly where inaction, apathy or clouded thinking can lull you into passivity. This is happening while the world is moving swiftly by.

If you can’t find motivation, bide your time by working in new gigs and projects. Explore. Engage. Be with people and keep solving problems. If you don’t like what you are doing, pivot to something else. The key is to keep moving.

Then, pay attention to the feedback you are getting in the world through engagement. If you are continually growing by learning new skills and helping as many people as you can, the clarity comes. You start to see patterns about what you want next.

Then you can rally and put all that passion, energy and time into what you have discovered.

You have to seek clarity continuously as a life process if you want to keep growing, performing and getting results. There is no resting on your laurels. Movement is life.

Trust, But Verify

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If you want to grow your business, you have to have good people to delegate functional work to. Otherwise, you become the bottleneck and risk making customers unhappy.

Many years ago, I remember learning the lesson of delegation early while working an engineering project. I had a designer working on new revisions for drawings of a machine assembly I was engineering. We talked about what changes needed to be made. I repeated and reviewed the specific changes with him.

Well, I thought by talking through those modifications that professionals get their job done because that is inherent. I had not learned to trust, but verify.

A few weeks later, after we went to prototype and fabricate of the parts, the assembly did not fit together. I was perplexed. I frantically measured all the components and to my dismay, I found that we produced parts from old drawings. There was a mix-up in what was communicated to the toolmaker.

I thought the designer had handled the updates, but that was an assumption. It was a very expensive retooling because the revisions were not communicated to our manufacturing partner.

We had many other revisions that were managed fine previously. This happened to be one of those that did not get communicated, though the work was done.

My business education benefitted though the project budget ballooned from my mistake. I learned a very hard lesson to trust, but verify. When you have teams or disinterested parties, the risk is high for a bad handoff or miscommunication.

Trust, but verify is risk management. We need it because, despite good intentions, humans are fallible. We are terrible at executing consistently. When there’s a handoff, I like to:

  1. Explain what I need
  2. Have the person let me know they understand by explaining back
  3. Documenting it with an email
  4. Reviewing if we met the spec/requirements of the handoff
  5. Provide praise and gratitude for a job well done

I think that last point of gratitude is important because it makes working together easier the next time based on trust. Also, I like letting people know what they did well. We all need encouragement and honesty as feedback.

You may have heard the phrase, “Trust, but verify.” Usually, people learn this lesson from pain. Hopefully, you can create your own approach that consistently makes handoffs and delegations a core, robust way you grow your business through delegation.