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.

Too Many Moving Parts

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You may have to build a business with 100 employees. Maybe a 1,000. That’s the manpower tax to help get your product into the hands of your customer.

Instagram had 13 employees serving 30 million users at a $500M valuation at one point. That’s leverage. Compare that to the 145,000 people Kodak employed in the industrial age in 1988.

We are lucky today. Technology allows us to do a lot more with less. I am not sure, even with that leverage, why human nature, when given a choice between the complex and the simple, tends to choose complexity. It’s one of those boggling mysteries to me.

When you build a business with too many moving parts, you have a lot of cost and management. It’s common and easy to do. Adding takes much less mental and emotional focus than subtraction.

There’s likely a simpler business to be in than the one you have designed. You may have to be more thoughtful about what you are doing, but that may be what is holding back your ability to grow.

Can you work with a vendor and get rid of a lot of headaches in your business instead?

Are you moving irrelevant information around?

Do you have systems that you have outgrown?

Are you living in the past?

Constant pruning is a necessary business skill. It allows for the new. You can get rid of dead weight and functions that simply don’t add value any more.

What moving parts are you currently managing that doesn’t make sense to have around anymore?

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.

The Strategy of Going with the Winner

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There is an irony about free markets that the collective participates in. On the one hand, we have massive choice in many categories. On the other hand, over time, we have a winner-take-all outcome. Over time, people consolidate and choose the best.

We don’t have all these phones. We have iPhones.

We have Starbucks, Netflix and Salesforce.com.

Early on, there can be many software options and platforms to choose from. Later on, there is an actual, or perceived, best in class.

If you are building services, you may want to opt for the efficient path and go with the winner. Winners enjoy the support of customers and their funding. They have larger ecosystems with partners, plugins, apps, marketing agreements and all the pieces for standardization.

Furthermore, it’s easier to move information, find talent and get things done around the winner’s platform.

On the one hand, “best” is not always necessarily functional or technical. It’s often a business case of inertia. You can push for merit on features of a runner-up technology or offering. However, there’s a lot of waste trying to metaphorically boil the ocean and convince others what product line should be the standard bearer.

There’s also a simplicity to choosing the winner. You don’t have to spend energy on choice. You can simply execute and give people what they want.

If you take a quick audit, there’s likely opportunity and efficiency you can gain by picking the winners so you can use those products, services and platforms to simply get your business done making money and interfacing with customers.

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?

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.

The Lucky Fool and Reality

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“It manifests itself in the shape of the lucky fool, defined as a person who benefited from a disproportionate share of luck but attributes his success to some other, generally very precise, reason.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness

If you haven’t read Taleb’s book, he does a masterful job of pointing out how our perceptions fool us, especially from the rare, high impact events we experience. We have biases that are hard to overcome. In the case of the lucky fool, we lean towards taking credit for the good luck that happens to us, and we blame outside forces and people for the bad things that happen. Tragically, our human nature distorts our perception of reality.

The Simple Dollar wrote a great essay on tips for increasing your good luck and decreasing your bad luck. It’s practical advice assuming you can overcome your own bias towards the luck that flows through your life. As the essay states, “We are all the lucky fool.”

There are opportunities galore that are there for the taking for those that are ready for luck. You have to be prepared, optimistic, open and competent to see and act on deals that are timely. Here are some weekly and daily practices to make luck bend your way and protect your downside from bad luck:

  • Treat all people with kindness and respect. Noone has to deal with you otherwise. And you need people to deal with you for luck to happen.
  • Be a person of value. Observe needs and work to help people.
  • Increase your value every day by what you know and who you know.
  • Make a daily habit of doing mindful self-care for your mental, spiritual, physical and emotional self. Pick something in each category and do it every day – read, work out, pray, and enjoy good people, for example.
  • Sow and reap. What you want, give more of. It’s the law of attraction you put to work.
  • Be a funnel of good ideas. You have to be learning, capturing and sharing. Connect your ideas or things you find helpful with the people you care about in specific, helpful ways. You need a good system for this.

I try to practice these habits to keep my probabilities of good flow high and reduce the probability of downside things happening in my life. I want luck, but not be the lucky fool as life and opportunities happen each day.

How do you increase your luck?

Reduce the Handoffs to Increase Efficiency

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Every handoff in your business is a failure point. When one person is handling information and moving execution to the next step, often you can get things done without many mistakes or delays.

When you have to hand off a lead, support call, requirements, or project task, it’s risk. What if the information is not correct? Is there nuance and clarity that have to be transferred?

Many projects need teams to deliver. But often, when we are growing businesses, we simply get fat and waste can build up. There are often unnecessary handoffs where it can be faster with less errors by cutting out steps, people or information.

With this season of downtime, what if you took inventory and got rid of handoffs that no longer make sense?

Look at when a customer starts their engagement with your company. How much work do they have to do before they get contacted? Can you automate the first touches?

Here are some other ideas to drive throughput by eliminating or reducing handoffs:

  1. Where does a request get bottlenecked? Consolidate the work with one person or automate the task using software.
  2. Set the expected response time for team tasks. Track this for 30 days. If you get a 3 day average response for something that should take 1 day, get the responsible parties involved and set up a new incentive to meet the customer expectation.
  3. Map out your steps. See if you can cut out steps that do not add value.
  4. For work that needs to be highly responsive, hire a support vendor or get a virtual assistant. It will force you to define what has to be done and you can manage accountability.
  5. Cut out any middlemen and replace it with direct service or engagement.

Handoffs usually develop because we hope to get some kind of efficiency, but we don’t revisit whether we have failure in speed or unnecessary mistakes. Take it back to simplicity, and care about your customer by removing the waste that simply happens because of unexamined workflow.

As the New Year is commencing, you can tighten your workflow up by looking at all those handoffs which create problems and bottlenecks.

Where are you finding handoff issues?

Eliminate Meaningless Work

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We can laugh at the paper shuffling reference as a bygone era, however, you would not be hard-pressed to see manual processes still being run today. Regardless of the efficiencies, cost-savings and better customer experience of digitization, old habits can die hard, especially in businesses.

Never mind if your livelihood depends on such inefficiencies. Innovating a workflow can easily eliminate the need for headcount.

It’s scary when efficiency keeps rolling back the tide and exposing waste. What may have been necessary or productive once is now either wasteful or meaningless work. This goes for digital processes as well.

There are cheaper, faster coders that can deliver an app from anywhere in the world.

You don’t have to manually enter data from one system to another. Using a tool like Zapier can automatically push data wherever you want. Or just make rules between your apps with IFTTT.

Bench is data mining, commoditizing and automating bookkeeping at scale.

Alibaba gets product entrepreneurs prototyping, testing and domesticating products.

Being a middleman these days can be quite wasteful, especially if you are in a production process. Better to figure out how to be more valuable and use the speed to get better results.

Meaningless work has a rapid half-life, especially when business owners and managers are squeezed to deliver better results and profits. Furthermore, you and I are consumers. We are part of the demand audience. We are snobs. We insist on food being delivered instantly, hotels being seamlessly booked and a car to pick us up when we push a button on our phone. Imagine some paper shuffler processing our requests and bottlenecking the exchange.

In your own work, take a look around and get rid of waste. You may have more time with automation. That’s a good thing. Now you can take the extra bandwidth and put the energy into the main thing that produces results for your customers.

Look across your business. It’s required that you eliminate waste. Consider Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno’s moral stance in growing your business, “It is not an exaggeration that in a low growth period, such waste is a crime against society more than a business loss. Eliminating waste must be a business’ first objective.”

Quick Waste Elimination Tips:

  • Write out the steps you do from attracting a customer all the way to putting money in your bank account. What steps can be removed or modified?
  • Write down all the software and apps you use. Get rid of 20% of them.
  • Find the 10% of best customers you have. Meet with them and do bigger deals.
  • Get rid of paper. Move information into systems.
  • Make it easier for a customer to buy from you or get support. Increase the speed and responsiveness.
  • Design a continuous recruiting process for talent.
  • Define who you like to work with. Only work with those people.

Pursuing Work That Has No End

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I heard a fantastic interview of an entrepreneur that adopted this motto in his ventures by Avot de Rabbi Natan,

“Do not be afraid of work that has no end”

I like closure and results. The kind of thinking that creates big movements, such as ensuring every human being has clean water, is daunting, to say the least. It’s the kind of commitment that stirs the soul to action, if we can find such a cause.

The hard part is to get above the noise of all the demands we have already committed to. I do think it’s good to periodically look up from our work and ask what direction we are headed.

We may find that we have emotionally shifted and that our priorities are misaligned.

Do I still care about this work?

Is there a new reality and opportunity to pursue?

Am I making an impact?

I think modern work moves at a dizzying pace, and it’s hard to get above the fray. Purpose, meaning and vision take deep thought, and that can be challenging, especially in the grind. However, I do often sense I am likely off course most of the time when it comes to work I have committed to. It’s that hunch I feel in the back of my mind while I maintain productivity around my commitments.

So, I try to keep some simple disciplines to keep thinking broader:

  • Morning routines. With coffee in hand, I like to be silent and let my mind and heart think and align on what is going on and where I am headed.
  • Constant questioning. I always ask myself and use conversations with others to evaluate my choices. Is there something better? I’m looking for better.
  • Perspective. I ask myself frequently, “Knowing what I know now further down the journey, would I have started this project?”

I think at a core level, we are deeply inspired with work that has no end and provides impact and meaning. It beats year after year of subsistence thinking.

Is there bigger work you should consider?