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.


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. 


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.

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

From Goals to Options to Decision Making

Articulating goals can be scary and overwhelming. Especially big lofty goals that keep us up at night or goals that we put off for years by telling ourselves, “Maybe someday. Maybe someday.”

Even when you can articulate a goal, figuring out how to move forward on it can seem impossible. It’s so charged with emotion and failure-issues and dark and twisty-ness, that it can be hard to see it for what it is: a beautiful idea that deserves attention and clarity.

There are tools that can help you navigate that dark and scary territory and move toward the sun! These tools take you on a three-part journey: Goal Setting, Generating Options, and Decision Making.

For Goal Setting, Zig Ziglar has a framework that asks us to identify a goal, parse out why pursuing this goal would be beneficial, name the obstacles that we perceive are holding us back, and identify people who we need to work with to move toward our goal. This framework helps you untangle the complexity of naming a goal for yourself so that you can articulate a path forward.

There are valuable sub-lessons in this framework as well. Like how social goal-setting is even if it’s a goal that you are setting for yourself. And that when you are social you have to be a good listener in order to strengthen your relationships. And you have to know how to ask for help and not be defensive when you receive feedback. It’s all of a piece!

Once you identify a goal for yourself, the next step (and one that is often overlooked) is to generate multiple options for moving forward.

For Generating Options, you can use the Business Model Canvas as a tool for Idea Generation. Because now that you have a framework for setting a goal, the next skill to develop is to learn how to create many options for getting there. Why create so many options and not just one or two? Because with each option you create for yourself, you increase your chances of finding the right one. It’s like a photographer taking a picture for the front page of the New York Times. Do they go out and take one or two pictures and call it a day? Hell no. They take dozens or hundreds of pictures and with each picture they increase their chances of finding that killer shot.

Now that you’ve generated so many options on how to move forward, how will you decide which path is best?

For Decision Making, there are a series of questions generated by Seth Godin and his team that are helpful. Because now that you’ve articulated an ambitious goal and have generated a lot of options for moving forward, you have to face the scary part, the part that makes it real like, “Holy Sh*t, I’m actually going to pursue this thing.” That part is deciding how to start.

The first two steps toward figuring out how to start are about giving yourself permission and encouragement to start. To do this, you can identify the change agents, the things that help you see that this the right time to make this decision. And then you can identify distractions, the things that are getting in your way like ruminating over sunk costs and or other things that are out of your control.

From there you get to be more rational, you get to examine and analyze the array of options that you’ve created for yourself. You do this by quantifying the odds and payoffs for each option that you’ve created. This helps you evaluate the risk associated with each option. The level of risk you chose is personal and situational and will be different for different decisions you make throughout your life. For some decisions, it’s best to “go big or go home.” For others, it’s best to “think big and start small.”

Setting goals and figuring out the best path forward can be terrifying and so overwhelming that we decide to do nothing, to put it off. But if there’s a decision or a goal that’s been gnawing at you, that keeps returning, I encourage you to bring it out into the light and run it through this process. Because it’s likely that that good idea or lofty goal that you keep pushing back, that you keep avoiding to pay attention to, is actually your calling.


It will be May 1st in two days. Where I live in the finger lakes region of New York State, this is the date that many seasonal businesses open: farmstands, ice cream shops, restaurants on the lake, the goat dairy up the road, and the little farmers market in my village. The state parks open up too.

Spring has been late to come this year in the way of blooms (there are hardly any yet). But now that I can stop at the farm stand and get some veg and eggs on the way home or sneak out before work for a bagel and coffee at that little deli on the lake, I’m happy.

My life here has a seasonality to it. In the winter I hunker down, I hibernate. I read a lot and usually make progress on an art project or two. But now that it’s spring, I’m shifting. I’m opening up, ready for spring and summer. I’ll be out a lot more, engaged with more people, and engaged more with nature.

Think Big. Start Small.

Having a new idea is both thrilling and overwhelming. It’s thrilling because you’ve finally found something that addresses a problem that you care deeply about. But it’s overwhelming because once you start to think about executing the idea, it’s hard to know where to begin. And that feeling of not knowing where to start can stop you from making any progress at all.

While your idea is big and has the potential to change the world, the best way to start is to start small. Find three people who care about the problem you are solving. Take them out for coffee. And rather than try to sell them your idea, ask them to complain. Ask them to complain about how the problem that you are exploring affects their life and the lives of people that they know. And don’t be satisfied with their first answer. Ask them to dig deep. Questions like, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “What makes you say that?” will give you answers that are chock full of useful information about your customers.

And when they are finally done complaining, ask them who else they know who you might talk to. And take those people out for coffee. And ask them to complain to you about the problem you are exploring. That’s how you find and build your tribe. One cup of coffee at a time.

Execution Isn’t Glamorous

Yesterday I had to do some troubleshooting with two pieces of art. With my cards, I had to figure out why the service bureau I’m using prints my images off-centered by 1/32 of an inch. Is it because of a mistake in my file or because of a mistake being made by them? The cards come off my printer at home perfectly centered. So I brought those test prints with me when I went to pick up the job. Hammering it out at the print shop isn’t what you think of when you think of an artist doing work. But it is, it’s part of the work.

My second piece of art is a kinetic sculpture. Yesterday I designed and fabricated a few more iterations of the control box to figure out the “best” way for the components to fit together. “Best” means a few things: how the arrangement of components affects the motion of the piece, the look of the piece, and the durability of the piece. The only way for me to figure that out is to make a bunch of different versions and test them.

This work isn’t glamorous. And 95% of people seeing the finished work won’t notice or appreciate that it’s been done, at least not consciously. But hopefully, it will elevate the work. One benefit I know for sure, it’ll help me sleep better!

3D Modeling With Your Hands

In the age of 3D printing, analog modelmaking is a bit of a lost art. But it should not be forgotten. Sometimes the smartest way to put together a model is to make something with your hands and not with a computer.

Lucky for us there are tons of resources out there including a series of videos from Industrial Designer Eric Strebel. The videos run the gamut from rendering with markers, to making 3D mockups with blue foam, to resin casting, to photo tips for product shots. Check them out here



Teaching the Craft of Design

There’s a lot of excitement about Design Thinking–a field of study made popular by Stanford University in which people learn techniques for navigating complexity; gaining empathy for users; and iterative prototyping.

Navigating complexity and gaining empathy for users are skills of the mind. The basics can be taught rather easily and with self-guided practice, they can be mastered. But prototyping is another story.

Prototyping is a skill of the senses: touch, sight, and sound with taste and smell being used less often (unless we are in the culinary arts). Prototyping is also a skill of perception: how objects and systems are perceived in time and space. However, the kind of prototyping we see in design thinking workshops consists of pipe cleaners and other fluorescent colored bits from the craft store with little regard for the senses or perception.

So how do we incorporate the more formal elements of design into design thinking workshops? Is it even possible? I have a few ideas:

  • COLOR. Limit the use of color. Untrained eyes can communicate clearly if they use this magical color combination: neutrals + one color. Neutrals should be used for the bulk of the design and color should be used to make the important parts “pop” or stand out.
  • CONSTRAINTS. Constrain the use of materials. Encouraging people to get the most impact out of the least amount of resources is a fantastic exercise. And it will give the prototype clarity.
  • CRITIQUE. Provide guidelines for giving and getting feedback. Prototyping is a process of continuous learning and improvement. So we can’t be presenting our work-in-progress as if in a sales pitch.

Can these skills be mastered in a weekend workshop? Of course not. But are they a good start for training ourselves to prototype with intelligence, curiosity, and elegance? I think so.


Creativity and Execution: Pastry Edition


a dessert by Jordi Roca

My introduction to the execution side of creativity was in my mother’s catering business that she ran out of our home kitchen when I was a kid. She called the business Gorgeous Food and the vision for the business was true to its name. The focus was on presenting fresh, seasonal ingredients in their most beautiful form. “Presentation is everything,” my mother used to say.

When prepping for a party, my mother would describe her vision, then set me up in the kitchen with the ingredients and tools I needed to execute. I kind of loved it. The openness of creativity combined with the orderliness required for assembly was a spot that I felt at home in.

It’s no surprise then, that in my adult life I LOVE watching cooking shows, especially ones that feature masters. This past weekend I watched Chef’s Table: Jordi Roca. Roca has a funny story. Standing in the shadows of his mother and older brothers, he struggled to find his voice for a long time. But he eventually found it in pastry.

My favorite part of the feature is watching the chef experiment with sugar. There are many scenes, played back in slow motion, in which Roca is spinning sugar or blowing it into glass-like forms then filling those forms with emulsions or creams. The creative process is mesmerizing. But what must be just as good, though they don’t show it, is how his team sets up for production. I’d like to see that.