Perfect Your Pilot to Scale Your Impact

Too many organizations try to grow by subscribing to a “more is better” approach. Yes, the original intent of this approach is a good one–when you are starting out, you need to explore your options and figure out what you want to be when you grow up. But all too often we get stuck in this experimentation phase and “Do all the things!” becomes a de facto strategy. Why? Because making strategic decisions is hard and scary. What if you put all your eggs in one basket and you are wrong?? Better to decide not to decide and see how that goes.

However, you started this organization because you want to make an impact. You want to be the best in the world at what you do. But when you avoid focus, you dilute your impact. Your systems break down. And broken systems don’t scale.

Let’s take “John’s Bake Shop.” John has three locations in one city and struggles to keep up with overhead. He’s told himself that more is better and that in order to reach more customers he needs to give them more options. But what if John turned that narrative around? What if he decided to focus on one retail location and make it the best that it could possibly be on product, service, and operations? Then customers would come from miles around to visit his shop and buy his product. John would hardly be able to keep up with demand.

Yes, it’s true that “perfect” is a controversial word in innovation land. “Don’t let perfect get in the way of good enough,” they say. And they are right. They are right when it comes to launching. You have to launch an imperfect product in order to learn. But in order to scale, you do need some perfect. You need to have product, service, and operations that run like a well-oiled machine. Well-oiled machines scale. They travel far.

Leadership is letting go

If you want to free up some time to think about how to scale the impact of your organization, you need to delegate some of what is on your plate to your employees. If you’ve noticed bottlenecks around certain processes that you are responsible for, that might be a good candidate for something you can hand off to someone else.

You need to train your people to take on these new responsibilities. You need to talk about how these responsibilities are in line with their own goals and the organization.  And then you need to trust them and let go. They won’t do things exactly the way you would have done them. That’s the price you pay for having more time to think about scaling your impact.

Teachers are the ultimate leverage points

I care deeply about who goes into technology as a profession and what they decide to do with it. Why do I care about that? Because technology is a powerful lever. It has an enormous impact on society and the world. When it’s in the hands of thoughtful people, it can scale amazing things. But in the hands of less thoughtful people, it scales mediocrity and distraction, and even worse, destruction. And since we need more truly amazing things and less mediocrity and distraction and destruction, we need to nurture thoughtful technologists who will design and launch amazing things.

How is it that some people go into tech and others decide not to? There are a few factors. Role models and cultural signals are huge influencers. Growing up, I didn’t have tech role models or see any signs from the people around me that tech was a path. So while I loved lego as a kid and I excelled at shop class and mechanical drawing in high school, I didn’t find my way to engineering. I didn’t know it was an option. I pursued art.

Ten years after art school, I discovered Industrial Design and finally found where I was supposed to be. A rich mix of art and design and engineering and systems. I was home.

But I didn’t become an industrial designer. Instead I put my energy into teaching, into trying to fix this problem I had in my youth. I wanted to help young people discover their inner techie earlier than I did. I still want to help them do that.

But I’m burnt out on teaching. Ten years of it and I’ve only reached a few students a year. Yes, I’ve helped set those students on a path to making and launching deep technology. But that’s not enough impact. It’s too small and it’s too slow. I need to level up or quit.

Recently I’ve been thinking that I want to quit teaching and try something new. Maybe even go back to being an artist. But the world keeps telling me that my teaching is my art. I need to lean into that. And I need to find a way to leverage it.

I think I’ll turn my focus from educating students to educating teachers. Teachers are the ultimate leverage points. If you can empower a teacher to teach technology in a thoughtful way, a way that inspires their students to become world changers and inventors, then you can reach, let’s say, 50 students over that teacher’s career — students who discover the path to designing and shipping meaningful technology. And if you can empower hundreds of teachers to teach technology in a thoughtful way, you can reach tens of thousands of students. And if you can teach a few of your peers to teach teachers, then you can reach millions of students. Leverage.

A Sunday Reflection (repost)

I wrote this post last Sunday and I’m still feeling it so I’m posting it again. Sometimes we don’t need to write something new. Sometimes we just need to revisit and appreciate what we have already written. 

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I’m grateful for the writing I’m doing these days. I’ve been writing some longer pieces and that has been satisfying.

I’m grateful for the different groups of people that I work with on different projects. That diversity and engagement feed my soul.

I’m grateful that spring has finally arrived. I’m happy about the plants that I picked up at the farm stand that are now sitting on my porch (and still on my porch waiting to be potted and that’s ok!)

I’m grateful for my friends and family even though I don’t see them as much as I’d like to. I hope that they are enjoying spring too.

I’m grateful for my husband and our little aging dog. We’ve been through a lot together and it’s so nice to enjoy the peaceful times we are having these days.

Your Team is a System

Your team is a system made up of people. People with a range of worldviews, experiences, motivations, and skills. If you want things to go well with your team, you need a kind of double vision. You need to see the system as a whole as well as the smaller relationships and individuals within.

There are a few things you can do to help this system be the best it can be.

BE CLEAR ABOUT THE GOAL. RESTATE IT OFTEN

Leaders tend to internalize the goal and assume that everyone on the team has done this as well. But team members can get distracted from what the goal is. This distraction leads to messy decision-making. It’s your job as a leader to be consistent in reminding your team of the goal. If you are designing a charter school, for example, it’s easy to get caught up in all of the features this new school might have and if your team members forget the goal, the criteria for the decision-making about these features can go off course. So remind them of the goal. The goal in the school example might be to serve students in a way that their current school isn’t doing. The goal might be to help these students be good people in the world. Remind your team of that. Once a month sounds about right. It will help guide your team’s decision- making.

ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR TEAM MEMBERS. VALUE THEIR WORLDVIEWS

You’ve brought together a diverse team, not by accident, but because you value the creativity that a diverse group is capable of. But along with creativity and diversity comes tension. Embrace it. When things get hard, remind your team why that’s a good thing. Sure, it would have been easy to bring a homogenous group of people together to work toward a goal. But the results would not have the depth that your diverse team’s results will have. Remind yourself and your team that there’s a cost associated with that depth. It’s that you have to put energy into navigating tension when it arises. Help your team see it this way, too. Tension is something to lean into, not something to avoid.

GIVE FEEDBACK. THE QUALITY OF THAT FEEDBACK MATTERS

Even though your team is a system, you need to see each person in it in order for it to operate well. Your team members do not want to feel like pawns in a chess game. They want to be seen as individuals with unique points of view that contribute to the richness of the team. They need feedback from you on a regular basis, not just in a yearly review. If it’s criticism, make it a private conversation. But if it’s praise, make it public. And make it meaningful. “I like your work” isn’t meaningful feedback. An art student gets an F for the day if they give that kind of feedback during a critique. It’s empty. You need to say why you like someone’s work in order to show them that you really see them. If you struggle to get to why you like someone’s work, zoom in on their process: Did they work hard? Were they persistent or creative? Did they show grit and tenacity? If so, call attention to that. Giving people feedback not only on their work but on the process that they used to do that work, isn’t only meaningful, it’s useful. It teaches them that they can face any challenge, that good results aren’t a result of some kind of innate talent or kiss from the muse. Good results are the outcome of hard work and persistence.

IDENTIFY BOTTLENECKS. ADDRESS THEM

Sometimes the system gets jammed up. Empower your team to identify and address bottlenecks when they happen. And rather than throw rocks at the bottleneck, which is often a person, slow the system down to the speed of it. Get everyone in the system moving at the same pace. Then once you do, harness your team’s creativity to figure out how to increase the capacity of the bottleneck. This can often mean taking responsibilities off of a person’s plate. If the system runs better now, then you’ve succeeded. But if you’ve created a bottleneck somewhere else, address that as well. Fine tuning a system isn’t a one and done deal. It’s an ongoing process. And if you are a systems thinker, you might even enjoy it. Iteration is a beautiful thing.

Friday’s Printable: Berries and Power

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On Fridays, I post a pair of printable cards made from shots that I snap on my phone.

Print them out, keep them for yourself, or share with friends. Enjoy! Download this week’s cards here

A few production tips

  • PRINTING. Use cardstock to print these out and make sure the print settings are set to “actual size.”
  • CUTTING. I included a little mark halfway down the page so that you know where to cut. The best way to cut this in half is with a metal straight edge and an x-acto knife.
  • FOLDING. The best way to fold these is to line up the corners, then use a long flat edge, like the side of a marker, to make the crease.
  • MAILING. You’ll need some envelopes. Something like this should do the trick.

You can find more printables here

Aligning Different Points-of-View to Make Positive Change

The complex problems that we face are complex because they require buy-in from multiple stakeholders. Take STEM Education. There is a lot of experimentation in this area. But if true reform is to scale, there needs to be buy-in from multiple stakeholders: students, parents, teachers, school administrators, policymakers, and sometimes even business owners. Each stakeholder in this list has their own motivation and worldview when they are addressing reform. So how do we navigate this kind of complexity? I have a few ideas.

The first thing we want to do is acknowledge the different points of view sitting at the table. So often we gloss over this and pretend it’s not going to present problems. But of course, it does. Any good listener at a committee meeting can hear the motivations behind what each person is saying out loud. And any good listener can see that when these motivations aren’t aligned, those mismatches manifest in clouded decision making. So it’s beneficial to acknowledge diversity.

The second thing we want to do is acknowledge people’s emotions. Our points-of-view aren’t only rational. Our points-of-view are tied deeply to our identity and hold space in our hearts. Emotion in decision making isn’t a bad thing. Unless we ignore it. If we ignore the influence of emotion, then that too manifests in confused decision making. So acknowledge emotion.

Once we have acknowledged the perspectives and emotions in the room, we are ready to frame the issue in a generous way, in a way that accommodates and encourages the diverse perspectives in the room. In an interview with UC Berkeley Professor George Lakoff, he asks us to reframe how we talk about taxes. If we frame tax issues as “tax relief” then the outcome of using this language is that people think taxes are bad and a form of punishment. But if we talk and think about taxes as our dues, as what we pay to enjoy the things that we enjoy in this country: highways, schools, bridges, etc, then we might see paying taxes as an act of patriotism. Yes, they are still hard to pay. But that’s what we do in order to live a good life. We make sacrifices. This is a generous way to think about taxes.

Once we have framed the issue we are working on in a generous way, the group of stakeholders with multiple perspectives are free to generate a bounty of potential solutions to explore. Why do we want to generate a number of potential solutions and not just one or two? Because each time we increase the number of potential solutions, we increase the chances of finding the right one or the right combination of a handful of solutions. If we revisit STEM Education as an example, a diverse group is likely to come up with curriculum ideas that are all over the map. This can feel terrifying for the teachers in the room because they know that they are on the line to implement the ideas that are decided on. To help those teachers relax, we can assure them that this is just brainstorm and that analytical decision-making will be coming in the next step.

However, the decision-making shouldn’t be framed as,”Which choices are right and which are wrong?” We should strive beyond either/or thinking to integrate the best ideas. Roger Martin, the former Dean of Rotman School of Management wrote a book about how the best leaders get alignment from multiple stakeholders. The book is called The Opposable Mind and in it, he claims that when great leaders are faced with choices that seem to be in opposition of each other, those leaders use integrative thinking to find a third way. With our STEM Education example, STEM Educators might proclaim that coding is the most important thing for a student to learn. While a parent might declare that teamwork is the most important thing that students can learn. And then a local business owner who has agreed to take on some students for a summer internship might believe that product management is the most important skill for students to learn. Integrative Thinking allows us to see that those three learning objectives don’t have to be in opposition. They can be integrated. A talented educator can craft lessons in which students learn to code while working in a team using a proven product management process.

Aligning these different points-of-view by acknowledging diversity, framing the problem in a generous way, brainstorming on multiple paths forward, and using integrative thinking to find the best solution is how we bring folks together to solve complex problems and make positive change.

Let’s do this.

note: This post was originally shared on Medium as a response to a prompt in Seth Godin’s altMBA program

A Sunday Reflection

I’m grateful for the writing I’m doing these days. I’ve been writing some longer pieces and that has been satisfying.

I’m grateful for the different groups of people that I work with on different projects. That diversity and engagement feed my soul.

I’m grateful that spring has finally arrived. I’m happy about the plants that I picked up at the farm stand that are now sitting on my porch.

I’m grateful for my friends and family even though I don’t see them as much as I’d like to. I hope that they are enjoying spring too.

I’m grateful for my husband and our little aging dog. We’ve been through a lot together and it’s so nice to enjoy to have the peaceful times we are having these days.

Friday’s Printable: Saturday Edition!

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I forgot to make a printable yesterday and wrote a post instead. So here’s this week’s printable, better late than never. Enjoy!

Download this week’s cards here

A few production tips

  • PRINTING. Use cardstock to print these out and make sure the print settings are set to “actual size.”
  • CUTTING. I included a little mark halfway down the page so that you know where to cut. The best way to cut this in half is with a metal straight edge and an x-acto knife.
  • FOLDING. The best way to fold these is to line up the corners, then use a long flat edge, like the side of a marker, to make the crease.
  • MAILING. You’ll need some envelopes. Something like this should do the trick.

You can find more printables here

Marketing Myopia

90% of new products fail. They fail because the team that designed the product paid more attention to their product and features and their own motivations than they did to their customers’ problems and worldview.

Take for instance that little voice-activated robot in my kitchen (Amazon Alexa). It’s crystal clear to me that the Alexa product team is much more focused on making shopping on Amazon easy for me than they are with my actual needs in the kitchen. It’s early days so I’m somewhat forgiving, but in the moment when I really need a reminder of how to make miso dressing, I get pissed off. Each time I have to put down my knife, wash and dry my hands, and walk over to my phone or laptop to get a recipe using my wet fingers, I just cringe. Alexa, why do you hate me?