You’re Not Going to Need It

Neal Conan: “You had solar panels (on your sailboat) for electricity.”
Matt Rutherford: “I did, but they broke.”
Neal: “They broke?”
Matt: “One by one.”
Neal: “I think you had a Kindle for reading books.”
Matt: “I did. It broke in a storm.”

I like Matt’s story for all that it tells as about our expectations and presumed requirements for a huge project we’ve never done before.

When I started out professionally the teams I worked on created deliverables; mockups, storyboards, sitemaps, taxonomy listings, content maps, wireframes, process flows, clickable prototypes, specification documents, usability testing, amazing looking proposals, Photoshop, timesheets. When I struck out on my own I assumed all of these things were required, so I packed them all with me.

Project after project I saw how each of these tools could bring as much confusion, delay, and tedious re-work as they could clarity. I saw how easy it was to iterate, debate, and perfect them, while losing sight of the project’s purpose and its promised business value. One by one, I stopped promising any specific design planning deliverable – other than a wireframe and a functioning web app. Then I dropped the wireframes. I eliminated all of this design planning documentation in favor of engaged conversations directly with the buyer that culminated in pen-on-paper sketches of how the key functionality should work followed by an estimate on when it’d be available to click-through.

Everything else? So much jetsam.

It’s not that I stopped doing the thinking encapsulated in those deliverables, the thinking became hyper-focused, hyper-prioritized on the core function of the project. If the core function couldn’t actually work nothing else will save it, not the color palette, not the logo, or which order the navigation labels are in. Hell, not even the project management methodology choice will save a project where the unique value proposition is neither.

The tools we actually need to be successful on a regular basis are so basic as to be taken for granted:
– trust in & respect for each other’s abilities
– clear, efficient, constructive communication
– absolute clarity in goals
– complete flexibility in execution
– a comfort with continual iteration

In this day and age, the rest can learned, negotiated, or rolled into the project as needed – whether it’s a project management philosophy, a unique software application, or a greater understanding of the subject matter. Presuming the four tools listed above are present, prior experience in the expected deliverables, vocabulary, or value chain of a specific domain is not only unnecessary but actually be counter-productive. Counter-productive to delivering the compelling innovation the creative team was assembled for.

Throughout its history, Apple – regularly cited as one of the most innovative and creative organizations – regularly dropped components presumed required for all computers; 3.25″ floppy drives, ethernet ports, optical drives, the ability to run arbitrary code.

At the time Google started getting becoming popular, having ads and headlines and other ‘portlets’ surrounding the search box was a presumed requirement for search engines.

Uber, Lyft, AirBnB dropped the presumed requirement that drivers/hosts needed to be licensed by the government.

Telsa, recently surpassed GM in market value, doesn’t have dealerships – a presumed requirement for an automotive brand by many states.

Yes, every one of these organizations is controversial for any number of reasons – but the very first one, the one deep down in their DNA is their bold dismissal of a presumed requirement around their core product.

So, yes I was disheartened when a Director at major employer confessed to me, “We don’t kill projects here.” For it meant a significant part of the organization was not yet boldly willing to separate the presumed requirements from the actual requirements far enough to spot the energizing, clarifying, innovation hidden in-between.

One of your presumed requirements is keeping you from growth. Do you know which one?

Red Flags? What Red Flags?

This was going to be a crappy project. The red flags were there from the very beginning.

The first: when my my buyer said, as I was about to sign the contract, “Today is my last day.”

I should have set the pen down right there, replied with a ‘Thank you for letting me know’ as I walked out the door. But I didn’t. I shook it off as a quirk. A minor curiosity. A small hiccup between me and their payment for my services. Definitely not a loud and flashing DANGER sign. Definitely not the high-point of the engagement.

With each day that followed, delays on the client’s end chewed away at my estimates and our agreed upon timeline until my side of the project heavily overlapped my family’s summer vacation. It’s my penance I told myself. My penance for committing to this project, for not firmly renegotiating when the timelines slipped, then slipped agin. A painful price for saying ‘Yes’ to something I shouldn’t have. So I, buckled down and resentfully, dutifully, worked through my vacation. A day or two from the completion the client called to say, “We had to bring in someone else to finish up.”

Oh, I was completely pissed. Pissed I wasn’t able, with all the odds against me, to make this project successful. Pissed I didn’t walk out on that first day. Pissed I didn’t say GTFO first.

Mostly though, I was relieved. Relieved I was now off the hook. Relieved I could now wash my hands of the project, the client, and their entire industry, with a long swim in the Wisconsin River.

Like an addict in a slow recovery, I began measuring time in the days. Days since I was kicked off that project.

This wasn’t the only project shouldn’t have worked on over the past 20 years. I could easily rattle off three more over a flight of Belgian beers. There’s probably a dozen mild and wholly forgotten failures. Even more that weren’t bad, but simply crowded-out better-fitting projects.

I’m sure you’ve had some painfully bad projects as well.

There were any number of points across all of these projects where someone needed to stop the line – and no one did.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a number of conversations around the client/vendor relationship. I’ve heard stories of six month projects being stretched out to a year – with the outcome barely distinguishable from the starting point. I’ve heard stories of software developers (inadvertently?) sabotaging a client’s project. I’ve heard of clients stiffing their vendors for no other reason than agreeing to a larger fee than they could pay within the project’s timeframe.

Sure, I’ve also heard stories of vendors flying executives cross country the very first hiccup of an implementation and stories of that elusive project that turned out better than anyone imagined.

Knit through all these conversations, there’s an unfortunate thread;

  • The absolutely best case scenario, is everyone doing what was expected when it was expected.
  • This is rare.

It doesn’t matter which project management process is followed; some bastardization of Agile, a traditional waterfall, something Scrum-like, or a more structured EOS. Too often both the client and the vendor have incentives and biases encouraging an unwavering march to an disappointing end, rather than a constructive, successful partnership. This doesn’t need to be the case.

There are many places to look for improved alignment:

  • Clearer articulation of the client’s business goals, measures of success, and business value of the project.
  • A better cultural fit between the client and the vendor.
  • Clearer tying of the vendor’s solution to those goals and returns.
  • Improved communication throughout the project.
  • Someone (everyone?) on the team feeling comfortable stopping the project at the slightest hint of things going sideways.
  • Fee structures encouraging maximizing business value rather than delays, low quality work, & maximizing hours.
  • A culture focused on success of the project, not which teams the players are on.

In the real estate world, there are Buyer Agents, advocating and representing the buyer’s interests, gathering their requirements, researching an array of options to select from, in ensuring every step of the process is successful for the buyer.

In the B2B technology world there is no equivalent, similarly well-understood role. The account manager usually isn’t involved in an ongoing basis, the project manager usually doesn’t have enough gravitas, and the remaining team members are usually so stretched they don’t notice if one project drags a little – let alone that it achieves the desired business goals. Neither side has an incentive to clearly and honestly communicate delays, unforeseen challenges, and mistakes to the other side. There’s no one with the incentive to keep both the buyer and the seller accountable for their sides of the partnership successful.

No wonder technology success stories are few and far between.

I want this to change.

This kind of work has been an underlying thread of my consulting and advising for the past five years;

  • from helping a multi-million dollar foundation select and implement a CRM,
  • to helping a non-profit selecting a vendor for a massive custom software development effort – leading to their successful multi-year partnership.
  • to introducing clients to vendors based on cultural fit.
  • to working with clients to start capturing the perceived business value sooner than they anticipated.
  • and leading the hard conversation on stopping the project when the pre-cursors of success weren’t evident.

Correction Canary

About fifteen years ago now, I was reorganizing how search results are displayed in a popular travel site (one you’ve probably used). The goal of the project was to to increase readability and scannability. To do this, I needed to move a few bits of information around. In my rush to prepare the prototype for the initial usability tests, I neglected to move all the bits of information to their new home.

The majority of the evaluators caught the mistakes – unprompted.

Commenting on mistakes – below the fold – unprompted?
I’ll happily take that as proof the scannability & readability improvements were successful. For, if the problems weren’t obvious from even this smallest-level engagement – we still had work to do.

**

Fast forward a decade, I’m building a proof-of-concept for a startup client. We agreed upon the smallest, most unique functionality necessary to communicate the value of the product. I went off to build it and they went off to find a cohort of interested, beta users.

A couple weeks later, the prototype was ready to interact with and I mass-created a few dozen accounts for the initial users, including a one for my client

I waited. I waited for bug reports, questions, for server performance issues, for emails, for phone calls. For I knew there would be some. Some bringing up issues I hadn’t dealt with yet, some bringing up edge cases that are only exposed during actual use. Some wanting to do something we hadn’t even considered yet.

A week went by – and nothing. No bug reports, no emailed questions of ‘How do I?’. Complete radio silence. On my way out the door, to meet my client in-person, I quick checked the access log – not a single person had logged in since they received their credentials.

Not even my client.

“I haven’t received any bug reports from any of the initial users,” I started after the Arnie Palmers arrived.

“Good?”

“Not good. No one’s logged in since the site’s been up. I don’t think the idea is compelling for the initial users – or for you.

“What do you think we should do?”

“Shut it down and find something more compelling to you and your interested users.”

The next day, we did.

**

This morning I received an email from a different client. One of their news products was throwing a series of admin-only messages into a publicly-available view. The issue was easy enough to resolve, though in resolving it, it was clear the issue had existed for least two years. Which means, this part of the site has had zero human engagement for that entire time. For if there was any engagement, I would have received emails from concerned users notifying us of the bug. Doch.

**

If you’re looking for a cheap way to measure actual human engagement and attention – deliberately insert an obvious and miniscule mistake and wait.

If a flood of corrections don’t come in, you’ve got a much bigger problem – nobody actually cares.

Measuring Growth in Your ‘Return on Lifestyle’ Business

In almost all cases, growing a business means one of the following:
– ever-increasing revenues
– ever-increasing share price
– ever-increasing customer count
– ever-increasing headcount

These are the metrics reported in the business section. These are the numbers that get everyone – the leadership team, the shareholders, early investors, the office space owners, the entire supporting ecosystem of vendors – of a given organization excited. Both when these numbers are going up and when they’re going down. Though, it’s only defined as growth when they’re going up.

I say in almost all cases, because the vast majority of the companies you and I interact with everyday are the kind of organizations measured by this definition of growth – both internally and externally. Why? Because that was their strategy from early on. Whether because the founders originally intended the company to be huge or because that’s how the investors and shareholders see a path to an exponential monetary return. The intention was to create a company as an asset of ever increasing value, that could be – eventually – sold for a profit.

Just because this is the most obvious definition of growth, it doesn’t mean it’s the only definition of growth. Nor does it mean it’s the right definition for your organization. Especially if your entire full-time staff is you (you’re a freelancer, solo practitioner, independent consultant, etc). Maybe, you have one other partner with 50% ownership. Maybe you’re the sole owner of a 10 person firm. In all these cases, your company is one of the thousands of extremely small companies. In all these cases the above definition of growth is toxic and cancerous. Especially if you have kids. Doubly-so if you’re the primary bread-winner for your family. This definition of growth will destroy your business and your most-treasured relationships. Maybe even you.

Yes, growth is just as valuable as it is to companies 10x, 100x, and 1000x your size, but what that growth looks like, is very, very different.

Growth here is more like maturity;
– an ever-increasing clarity in identity
– an ever-increasing in focus on doing your one thing amazingly well
– an ever-increasing service to that one tight niche you’re expert in,
– ever-chipping away at the waste around it.

Growth as a ruthless elimination of the fat in your business, through both automation and saying “No” frequently.

Despite the hype and the catchy title, this is what Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Work Week is actually about. A ruthless elimination of the low value effort so you can maximize your 164-Hour Life Week.

Low value work is all the stuff that doesn’t excite you about your work. It’s up for you to decide precisely – but it’s likely paperwork, administrative stuff, maintenance stuff. All of this stuff can be automated (via a technology wholly or some sort of Mechanical Turk) or simply ignored.

Don’t want to answer the phone? There are a number of services that will do that for you.
Same for your email inbox.
Same for most every aspect of your business.

You’re not trapped by the painful parts of your business. You’re not trapped by some definition of What a Business Is Supposed To Be. It’s your business. You own it. Take control of making it serve you.

For example, about five years ago, I stopped billing my services by the hour. Hourly billing is terribly common for even the smallest professional services firm. Some clients insist on it for low level positions. Even early in my career, I found it distracted me from better serving my clients. In short, it was waste in my business. Where as some people would find a better time-tracking system, I just said, “No, I don’t do business this way”. My annual revenues since making the change have been about the same as before, so from a big company ‘growth’ measure – it was a horrible move. Yet, it has freed up so much of my time, freed up so much of my headspace, dramatically improved my client relationships, and how I feel about my work. Positive growth.

Professional service firms with fewer than 10 full-time employees are – in the most positive and fulfilling definition of the word – lifestyle companies. Their primary function is to deliver, not an ROI, but a ROL – Return on Lifestyle.

Some Ways to Measure ROL Growth:
– The business fully covers your health, dental, and retirement accounts.
– Every quarter you’ve fulfilled some crazy life goal (run a marathon, vacation in an exotic location, write a book).
– The absence of drama in your daily life is palpable.
– Rush hour traffic is more curiosity than annoyance.
– Your weekly calendar is an even mix of work, family, community, and personal commitments.
– There’s not a single active, bullshit project taken “because we need the money.”
– You’re in the best mental & physical shape of your life.

Do these metrics mean your business is somehow less of a business than those traded on the stock markets?

Yes.

Because it is.

Across every GAAP measure. The amount of paperwork you’re compelled to file is a small fraction of what they have to file. The problems your business has are a small fraction of theirs.

Unlike these businesses, your business evaporates the moment you get hit by a bus.

So what? Embrace it. Commit to it.

It doesn’t mean your business can’t have a disproportionately positive impact on the world. It can – and that positive impact will drive your demand.

If your business is so in demand that you might need to hire help. First do these things:
1. Raise your fees. (See #4)
2. Declare when you’ll take on a new client project, just like an in-demand hotel (e.g. “We’re not booking for Feb 2017”). Hold firm.
3. Be exponentially more selective.
4. Work one less day a week.
5. Stop taking on new clients or projects.

I’ve seen too many very small businesses interpret a spike in short-term demand for a long-term trend (hiring spree, move to a huge new office) only to be in a position of unwinding all of that a few, short months later. These five strategies have a far higher ROL than presuming the demand is sustainable. In fact, they actually test resilience of the demand. That doesn’t mean they’re easy strategies to employ – they’re just far easier strategies than growing your overhead.

All There Is

Back in 2008, I received a half pound of George Howell’s Terroir Coffee: El Salvador: Finca La Montaña. This particular coffee won the Cup of Excellence the prior year and then – the plantation was completely wiped out by near hurricane strength winds.

Gone.

The half pound in my possession, in the middle of winter in Minnesota, was some small part of all that remained of years of effort by dozens of people and hundreds of coffee plants. This coffee no longer exists. The place that grew it no longer exists. Wiped off the face of the earth. No matter how amazing it is, no matter how balanced, now smooth, how complex and rich – there is no more of it. No matter how much I wanted one more cup – one more cup to share with you – there is no more. This is all there is.

I had brewed a ghost.

In addition to the dark fruit flavors in the cup, I also noticed hints of somberness, loss, and an awkward exclusiveness. Yet, the finish was still bright with gratitude.

Earlier this week, I judged a homebrew cider competition. In BJCP-sanctioned homebrew competitions, there are 2 bottles of each entry. In the first round, one bottle is opened and two judges spend 10 minutes evaluating a small 1-2oz sample of it. That small sample ensures that at least 6oz remains in the case that this entry advances to the second round (mini-Best-of-Show). The second bottle is only opened if the entry advances to the Best of Show.

These are small amounts, just enough, to make a comprehensive evaluation. Sometimes far more than enough. It doesn’t matter how amazing any given entry is. All you get is an ounce. Maybe two. No more. That’s it. Even if you could track down the homebrewer – they may have no more. Given the multiple weeks between brew days and judging days – it’s highly likely the only bottles remaining are the ones being judged. Even if more existed, they’d still have to get to you. The best they may be able to do is to share their recipe. Assuming you could exactly re-create their beer in your brewery – it’ll still take a minimum of two weeks to enjoy it again. Probably longer. Plus, you probably didn’t exactly recreate it.

Another ghost.

Companies like Cocoa-Cola, Pepsi, and Yum! Brands are continually pursuing constant consistency if not at a global scale, then at a mega-region scale e.g. all Cherry Coke Zero in North America should taste exactly the same. And there will always be plenty of it. Even with more agricultural products – like the Simply Orange brand – built on the premise that the vagaries of the orange harvest from every farm in every region across every season can be blended out to produce a deliciously unwavering product. Indefinitely.

When so many of the products we interact with everyday are persistently and consistently available, it’s easy to forget that not everything is. It’s easy to mindlessly consume. Not savoring, not contemplating, not considering, not appreciating, not acknowledging that once we consume it, it’s gone. Completely gone. There is no more for anyone else. Not even us. Through our consumption, we have extinguished it.

Whether an offering from a chocolatier half way around the globe, or coffee from a nonexistent plantation, or an amazingly delightful beet Berliner Weisse, or anything else on your plate, or the people around it. It is a privilege, an exclusive and elusive privilege be have these things for your pleasure, for your sustenance. For when the glass is empty, when the plate is clean, when the moment is over – these things are gone. Gone forever.

In Somm – Into the Bottle – there’s a scene where a vintner at Clos Ste. Hune opens up one of the few remaining 1962 vintages that his father created. After he pours an ounce for himself, he offers an ounce to his son and directs,

“You have to put this wine in your memory. You have to register every little detail. Each vintage has to be registered in your mind.”

Register the nuances of each aromatic, the exact level of tannic astringency, each distinct note; the sweetness, the depth and complexity, the acidity, the alcohol presence, the dryness of the finish – then label it ‘1962 Reisling’, and put it on a shelf in your memory palace. All from just an ounce or two.

Assuming you’re paying attention to every sensation, appreciative for the opportunity, for the privilege, of being able to enjoy this tiny bit of an ever dwindling supply not just of coffee, or beer, or wine. An ounce is more than enough.

For each time they open a bottle from 1962, there’s one less bottle from 1962. Eventually, the last bottle will be opened and memory is all that will remain.

But time.

It’s easy to assume there will always be one more moment, that like the ever-refilled shelves of the grocery store, there will always be tomorrow. Unfortunately, unlike the these things we can put in cans and bottles to preserve, to transport through time, time itself is continually being destroyed by hurricane-strength winds. This minute is unapologetically wiped out by the next. This hour is slowly, quietly, sneaking away from us, never to be heard from again. Each breath is a complex blend of somberness, loss, awkward exclusiveness, gratitude, calm, and opportunity.

The best we can do is to savor every detail. To register these rare moments in our memory. We don’t really know how many moments are left for us, our memory is all there is.

The sound of the garbage trucks jerking mechanically down the street. The clacking of the keys on the keyboard, the sound of tiny footsteps running down the hallway. The humm of the fluorescent lights. The smell of a clear summer day. Vintage – 11:20am Wednesday June 8, 2016.

Make Mountains into Milestones

I recently returned from four refreshingly long days in Lutsen along the beaches of Lake Superior’s north shore. The weather was warm and calm enough to spend one of the mornings in a kayak. After scooting along the shoreline, our tour guide led us out in to the lake, far enough out that the shore was a distant sliver. We stayed out there a bit, appreciating the clear, fresh, water. We had gone far enough out that we could no longer see any man-made structures. No cabins. No lighthouses. Just trees, mountains, and the lake water.

Our tour guide, knowing he couldn’t point us in the direction of our resort (for we couldn’t see it) pointed out two peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains and directed us to point our kayaks between them. Ten minutes later, we were close enough to shore to see human scale again. Our guide then pointed out a distinctly colored cabin along the shore and had us turn slightly and paddle toward it. Then, ten minutes later, he pointed out a series of townhouses peaking out from the evergreens and we turned ever more parallel with the shore heading toward them. Five minutes later, our resort was within sight and he directed us in for a landing.

Big transformative projects are like this journey back to shore. None of the landmarks the guide used were our final destination, they were the landmarks we could see from where we were. We all knew that our destination was out there, was real, and was our final destination. These intermediate, temporary landmarks made the journey more comfortable and far less overwhelming than if we made a beeline for a pinpoint beyond our field of vision.

It’s June 2016. Week 23. The mid-point of the year is three short weeks away.

The milestone projects my clients and I initiated in December and January are now going live (you may see a few of these coming to your favorite websites). These foundational efforts, are all incremental steps toward a larger effort that will take us through the end of the calendar year. Like the guided kayak journey to shore, our final destination is still hidden behind the horizon. We’ll still need to adjust our heading against a couple more milestones. Against a couple more iterations.

These iterations allow us to capture greater fractions of larger project’s business value sooner than the projected 18-month timeframe. It also builds resiliency into the project and the teams. As we’re able to set the heading to the landmarks we can see more details reveal themselves with each adjustment.

There are two take-aways:

  1. If you haven’t yet scheduled a long weekend enveloped in nature, out of range of your mobile phone service, do so this week.
  2. If you’ve lost sight of your destination on a big project, identify intermediate destination you can see that’s in the same general direction, one that will help you make substantial progress – both directly & indirectly. Adjust and repeat. If you’d benefit from a guide to supporting you along the way, give me a call.

Have a Better Day

I don’t need to tell you this winter was cold. You were there. Simultaneously grateful and baffled that you’re living through month-long stretch of highs below 0°F. Highs below 0°F. My car, parked in the open air stopped turning over. Each morning, it would cry as I turned the key. Wahhh Wahhh Wahhh Wahhh. On rare days, the car would start right up – say, if I ran to the grocery store for baby formula late the previous night. Other days, when school was cancelled because it was too cold to leave the house – it would cry again.

This winter, when the Cruiser’s battery would cry – I’d jump it. Daily. In the middle of that frigid spell – a couple times a day. I became expert in jump starting it. I’d open the garage door, backup the van inline with my PT Cruiser, pop the hoods on both and in 15 minutes both cars would be running. Reluctantly.

One Tuesday with a negative high, Jen loaded the baby and the preschooler in the van for preschool drop off. I hadn’t planned to leave the house. I hadn’t jump started the Cruiser. A few minutes later, Jen calls me. The van, after driving 10 blocks for preschool drop off, refuses to start.

“The Cruiser won’t start,” the worst part of me cowers.

“Can you check?”

Reluctantly. I do.

Wahhh Wahhh Wahhh Wahhh.

Another preschool parent give Jen and the baby a ride home. I find my gym backpack and look up “replace PT Cruiser battery” on YouTube. I gather up the tools to disconnect and remove the heavy, cold, dead battery from underneath a brittle, plastic air vent. Jen confirms a replacement is in stock at the nearest auto parts store – a mile away.

“Yes, they have one.”

I take a deep breath and start walking.

With each step on the styrofoam snow I think about the cold. I think about how many icebox winters I’ve lived through. How many winters my family before me has lived through. Fifty North Dakota winters. A hundred Northern Minnesota winters. I imagine the isolated, madness-inducing winters the Split Rock Lighthouse keeper families endured.

It’s deathly calm as I walk 1 mile on a plowed road. I’m not concerned about having enough food to last the winter. I’m not concerned about keeping the house warm enough. I’m not concerned about the kids clothing being warm enough. I’m not concerned about paying for the car battery.

“Hi, my wife called about the PT Cruiser battery,” I say through fogged up glasses to the blur behind the counter.

“Yes, here it is.”

It seems heavier than the dead one. I pull and stretch the backpack around it. The weathered, retired man behind the register hands me a receipt and a, “Have a better day,” as I heave the battery-laden backpack on.

I smile, take a deep breath of warm air, and head out the door.

As I walk back, I visualize my plan; install the new battery in the Cruiser, drive it to the van, jump start the van. Then what? Three steps ahead is as far as I seem to be able to think in this stubborn cold. Ten minutes later, Success! I’ve reached the end of my plan – 2 running vehicles. Still just one me – 10 blocks from home.

The new plan: drive each vehicle 2 blocks, park it, run back to the other vehicle, start it up and drive it 2 blocks past the other vehicle. Repeat until both cars are in the driveway.

I start with the van. Driving it from Lowry to 27th. Then jump out and run back to Lowry for the Cruiser. I underestimated the feeling of helpless, anxious, panic in the moment before the engine turns over. Though it confidently does. I drive it from Lowry to 29th. Then back to 27th for the van. Again the helpless, anxious, panic just before it startup. Then. From 27th to 30th, and back to 29th for the Cruiser – which I take all the way home. Then back for the van. Breathless and chilled, I drove the van into the driveway just in time for preschool pick-up.