Book review: “Influence without Authority”

As product managers, we’ve all experienced it: a sense of frustration when you’re accountable for delivering value without having any authority over the people that are critical to delivering that value. Whether’s it’s stakeholders, customers, developers, designers, there’s only so much we can do to influence and create the level of buy-in or cooperation required to create successful products.

In Influence without Authority (2005) Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford explore ways in which we can influence others without having authority over them. Cohen and Bradford’s “Model of Influence without Authority” forms the backbone of this book (see Fig. 1 below).

 

Fig. 1 – Summary of the Cohen-Bradford Model of Influence without Authority – Taken from: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/328270260312405687/

“Influence without Authority” outlines the key components of this model, illustrating the scenarios in which the model can be applied. These are the three learning points I took away from reading this book:

  1. The currencies of exchange – The aforementioned Cohen-Bradford model is based on exchange and reciprocity – making trades for what you desire in return for what the other person desires. There are number of potential currencies that one can use to trade (see Fig. 2 below).
  2. Gaining clarity on your objectives – For the Cohen-Bradford model to work effectively, it’s important that you figure out exactly what you want, and prioritise your goals accordingly (see Fig. 3 below).
  3. Deciding with whom to attempt exchanges – The ability to consider and decide potential allies to exchange is a critical part of the Cohen-Bradford model and the book outlines some valuable considerations how to exchange directly with a potential ally (see Fig. 4 below).

Fig. 2 – Frequently valued currencies – Taken from Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford, “Influence without Authority”, pp. 36 – 51

Inspiration related currencies:

Inspiration related currencies reflect inspirational goals that provide meaning to the work a person a does.

  • Vision – You can help overcome personal objections and inconvenience if you can inspire the potential ally to see the larger significance of your request.
  • Excellence – The opportunity to do something really well and pride in having the chance to accomplish important work with genuine excellence can be highly motivating.
  • Moral/ethical correctness – Probably most members of organisations would like to act according to what they perceive to be ethical, moral, altruistic or correct thing to do.

Task related currencies:

Task related currencies are directly related to getting the job done. They relate to a person’s ability to perform his or her assigned tasks or to the satisfactions that arise from accomplishment.

  • New resources – Resources such as budget, people, space, equipment or time are important currencies when it comes to enabling someone to get the job done.
  • Challenge – The chance to work at tasks that provide a challenge or stretch is one of the most widely valued currencies in modern organisational life.
  • Assistance – Although large numbers of people desire increased responsibilities and challenge, most have tasks they need help on or would be glad to shed.
  • Organisational support – This currency is most valued by someone who is working on a project  and needs public backing or behind-the-scenes help in selling the project to others.
  • Rapid response – It can be worth a great deal for a colleague or boss to know that you will respond urgently to requests.
  • Information – Recognising that knowledge is power, some people value any information that may help them shape the performance of their unit.

Position related currencies:

These currencies enhance a person’s position in the organisation and, thereby, indirectly aid the person’s ability to accomplish tasks or advance a career.

  • Recognition – Many people gladly will extend themselves for a project when they believe their contributions will be recognised, so it’s importance to spread recognition around and recognise the right people.
  • Visibility to higher ups – Ambitious employees realise that, in a large organisation, opportunities to perform for or to be recognised by powerful people can be a deciding factor in achieving future opportunities, information, or promotions.
  • Reputation – Reputation is another variation on recognition. A good reputation can pave the way for lots of opportunities while a bad one can quickly shut the person out and make it difficult to perform.
  • Insiderness – For some members, being in the inner circle can be most valued currency. One sign of this currency is having insider information, and another is being connected to important people.
  • Importance – A variation on the currency of inside knowledge and contacts is the chance to feel important. Inclusion and information are symbols of that, but just being acknowledged as an important player counts for the large number of people who feel their value is under recognised.
  • Contacts – Related to many of the previous currencies is the opportunity for making contacts, which creates a network of people who can be approached when needed for mutually helpful transactions.

Relationship related currencies:

Relationship related currencies are more connected to strengthening the relationship with someone than directly accomplishing the organisation’s tasks.

  • Acceptance / Inclusion – Some people most value the feeling that they are close to others whether an individual or a group/department. They are receptive to those who offer warmth and liking as currencies.
  • Understanding / listening / sympathy – Colleagues who feel beleaguered by the demands of the organisation, isolation or unsupported by the boss, place an especially high value on a sympathetic ear.
  • Personal support – For some people, at particular times, having the support of others is the currency they value most. When a colleague is feeling stressed, upset, vulnerable, or needy, he will doubly appreciate – and remember – a thoughtful gesture.

Personal currencies:

These currencies could form an infinite list of idiosyncratic needs. They are valued because they enhance the individual’s sense of self. They may be derived from task or interpersonal activity.

  • Gratitude – While gratitude may be another form of recognition or support, it is a not necessarily job-related one that can be valued highly by some people who make a point of being helpful to others. For their efforts, some people want appreciation from the receiver, expressed in thanks or deference.
  • Ownership/Involvement – Another currency often valued by organisational members is the chance that they feel that they are partly in control of something important or have a chance to make a major contribution.
  • Self – concept – These currencies cover those that are consistent with a person’s image of himself or herself.
  • Comfort – Some individuals place high value on personal comfort. Lovers of routine and haters of risk, they will do almost anything to avoid being hassled or embarrassed.

Negative currencies:

Currencies are what people value. But it is also possible to think of negative currencies, things that people do not value and wish to avoid:

‘Withholding payments’

  • Not giving recognition
  • Not offering support
  • Not providing challenge
  • Threatening to quit the situation

‘Directly undesirable’

  • Raising voice, yelling
  • Refusing to cooperate when asked
  • Escalating issue upwards to common boss
  • Going public with issue, making lack of cooperation visible
  • Attacking person’s reputation, integration

Fig. 3 – Gain clarity on your objectives – Taken from Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford, “Influence without Authority”, p. 82

  • What are your primary goals?
  • What personal factors get in the way?
  • Be flexible about achieving goals.
  • Adjust expectation of your role and your ally’s role.

Fig. 4 – Deciding with whom to attempt exchanges – Taken from Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford, “Influence without Authority”, pp. 134 – 136

  • Centrality of the ally – How powerful is the other person? Power means more than hierarchical position: What needed resources does he or she control? How exclusive is the person’s control of those resources? How dependent are you on that person for success?
  • Amount of effort / credits needed – Do you already have a relationship with the person, or will you be starting from scratch? Is the person likely to insist on trading in currencies you do not command or cannot gain access to? Will the person be satisfied as long as you at least pay your respects and stay in touch, without asking anything directly?
  • Alternatives available – Do you know anyone whose support will help gain the support of the potential ally? In other words, who can influence the ally if you are not able to directly? If you can’t influence the person in the right direction, can you find a way to neutralise him or her? Can you reshape your project to take the person’s opposition into account or to skirt the person’s worst concern?

Book review: “The Art of Active Listening”

Listening. Listening. Listening. I know how important it is, but I also know how hard I sometimes find to truly listen. I guess I’m not unique when I miss half of what the other person is saying because I’m so preoccupied with what I’m going to say in response. This realisation prompted me to read The Art of Active Listening by Josh Gibson and Fynn Walker. These are my key takeaways from reading this book:

What is active listening?

The difference between “active listening” and “normal listening” was my first learning from reading “The Art of Active Listening”. The authors of the book, Josh Gibson and Fynn Walker, make it pretty clear from the outset that there are only two communication states: actively listening, and not really listening. Gibson and Walker then go on to explain that active listening is the art of listening for meaning; active listening requires you to understand, interpret, and evaluate what you’re being told.

With active listening, your attention should be on the speaker. This means that whenever you feel an inner urge to say something, to respond, try to stop this urge and instead concentrate on what’s being said. Just to give you a personal example from how this urge often manifests itself when I listen:

Speaker: “So we decided to do X, Y, Z.This felt like the best approach, because …

Me – thinking: “Why did they decide to do XYZ, that doesn’t make sense!”  – Thus completely ignoring the “because” part of the speaker’s statement

It’s easy to see from this example how people like me run the risk of missing critical bits of a conversation, purely because the focus is on the response instead of on listening actively.

Importance of active listening

In the book, Gibson and Walker explain why it’s so important to actively listen:

  • Active listening encourages people to open up.
  • Active listening reduce the chance of misunderstandings.
  • Active listening helps to resolve problems and conflicts.
  • Active listening builds trust.

To me, active listening is the key to empathy and relationship building. I liked Gibson and Walker’s simple breakdown of human communication: “In simple terms, speaking is one person reaching out, and listening is another person accepting and taking hold. Together, they form communication, and this is the basis of all human relationships.”

7 common barriers to active listening

Learning about the seven common barriers to active listening was my biggest takeaway from “The Art of Active Listening”. In the book, Gibson and Walker point out the typical barriers that most of us deal with when listening:

  1. Your ignorance and delusion – The first barrier to active listening is simply not realising that listening isn’t taking place. Gibson and Walker make the point that most of us can get through life perfectly well without developing our listening skills, deluding ourselves that listening just involves allowing another person to speak in our presence.
  2. Your reluctance – When you actively listen to another person, it may be that you become involved in their situation in some way. There might be instances where you’re reluctant to get involved and as a result fail to lend a sympathetic and understanding ear.
  3. Your bias and prejudice – Your personal interpretation of what you’re hearing may cause you to respond negatively to the speaker. You either assume that you know the situation because you’ve had a similar experience in the past or you allow your preconceptions to colour the way you respond.
  4. Your lack of interest – You may simply not be interested in what the speaker is saying. We all know that this can happen when you feel the conversation topic is uninspiring.
  5. Your opinion of the speaker – Your opinion of the speaker, as a person, may influence the extent to which you’re happy to pay attention and give your time to the speaker. Often when you don’t like the speaker, this is likely to affect your desire to listen to the speaker. I’ve also noticed how in certain places, the status of the speaker has a big influence on whether he or she is being listened to. In these places, the CEO tends to be listened to automatically, whereas ‘people of lower rank’ might struggle to be heard.
  6. Your own feelings – Your ability to listen to other people can easily be affected by how you’re feeling at a particular moment. For example, if you’re in a good mood you might feel more inclined to listen actively and offer your best advice based on what you’ve just heard. In contrast, if you’re in a bad mood, the last thing you might want to do is listen to someone else’s thoughts and offer advice in response.
  7. The wrong time and wrong place – These are the physical factors that influence whether you’re willing or able to actively listen to what you’re being told. For example, having a heart to heart conversation in a busy coffeeshop is unlikely to positively affect your ability to listen actively.

4 components of active listening

With the four components of active listening that are pointed out in the book, the onus is on the listener to develop these components:

  1. Acceptance – Acceptance is about respecting the person that you’re talking to; irrespective of what the other person has to say but purely because you’re talking to another human being. Accepting means trying to avoid expressing agreement or disagreement with what the other person is saying, at least initially. I’ve often made this mistake; being too keen to express my views and thus encouraging the speaker to take a very defensive stance in the conversation.
  2. Honesty – Honesty comes down to being open about your reactions to what you’ve heard. Similar to the acceptance component, honest reactions given too soon can easily stifle further explanation on the part of the speaker.
  3. Empathy – Empathy is about your ability to understand the speaker’s situation on an emotional level, based on your own view. Basing your understanding on your own view instead of on a sense of what should be felt, creates empathy instead of sympathy. Empathy can also be defined as your desire to feel the speaker’s emotions, regardless of your own experience.
  4. Specifics – Specifics refers to the need to deal in details rather than generalities. The point here is that for communication to be worthwhile, you should ask the speaker to be more specific, encouraging the speaker to open up more or “own” the problem that they’re trying to raise.

Tips to improve your active listening skills

The book provides some useful pointers on how you can best improve your active listening skills, explaining the essence of each tip outlined here:

  1. Minimise external distractions
  2. Face the speaker
  3. Maintain eye contact
  4. Focus on the speaker
  5. Be open-minded
  6. Be sincerely interested
  7. Have sympathy, feel empathy
  8. Assess the emotion, not just the words
  9. Respond appropriately
  10. Minimise internal distractions 
  11. Avoid “me” stories
  12. Don’t be scared of silence
  13. Take notes
  14. Practice emotional intelligence
  15. Check your understanding

The main principles of reflective listening

Once you’ve listened actively, “reflective listening” is what comes next. Reflective listening is concerned with how you process what you’ve heard. The four components of active listening – acceptance, honesty, empathy and specifics – all work towards creating reflective responses in the listener. The main principles of active listening are:

  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Deal with personal specifics, not impersonal generalities.
  • Decipher the feelings behind the words, to create a better understanding of the issues.
  • Restate and clarify what you have heard.
  • Understand the speaker’s point of view and avoid responding from your own viewpoint.
  • Respond with acceptance and empathy, not coldly or with fake concern.

Main learning point: Understanding more about the common barriers to active listening – and how to best overcome these – was my biggest takeaway from reading “The Art of Active Listening”. The book does a great job at offering practical tips on how to listen actively and how to better process the things you’ve heard.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.ted.com/talks/evelyn_glennie_shows_how_to_listen
  2. https://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/active-listening.html
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_listening
  4. http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/active-listening

 

Book review: ValueWeb

Chris Skinner – author of the bestselling book Digital Bank – recently published ValueWeb: How FinTech firms are using mobile and blockchain technologies to create the Internet of Value. The ‘”ValueWeb” covers the rise and importance of blockchain technology, describing it as a key technology for authentication and transactions. Skinner positions blockchain technology as a means to an end, with the ValueWeb being the ultimate outcome. The ValueWeb, being closely linked to to the Internet of Things, allows machines to trade with machines and people with people anywhere, in real-time and at virtually no cost.

The blockchain can be used as a shared ledger for shared economies. One of the things I liked about the ValueWeb book is how Skinner removes all sense of buzz around blockchains by stressing the fundamentals which underpin this new technology: “The blockchain creates a marketplace for globalised value exchange that is trusted, secure and irrevocable.”

These are the main things that I took away from reading Value Web:

  1. Mobile as an authentication tool – Skinner makes the point that mobile “makes invisible banking visible.” He also explains how mobile serves as a very effective authentication tool, based on four key mobile attributes (see Fig. 1 below).
  2. Africa shows the way to the future – The book’s chapter titled “Africa shows the way to the future” felt the most inspiring. In this chapter, Skinner zooms in on the success of M-PESA in Kenya. M-PESA is a pioneer with regard to facilitating mobile money transfers between people in Kenya, through mobile network operator Safaricom, a subsidiary of Vodafone. Through M-PESA, a mobile wallet, the mobile phone is acting as a ‘value exchange mechanism’, making it easy for people to send and receive money. M-PESA’s “agent network” is the key component here. Agents in Kenyan towns take money and text the agent in the location the money needs to be delivered. The agent in the receiving location gets the text message and then issues cash to the target recipient.
  3. Digital currencies –  The ValueWeb is based upon two key technologies. Firstly, mobile, which enables people to exchange value in real-time and facilitate real-time authentication (see point 1. above). Secondly, digital currencies, to provide a store of value to exchange. Bitcoin is the key value currency which started it all. The key thing to know about bitcoins, and the different variations of this cryptocurrency, is that it was the first ‘enabler’ of online value exchanges, conducted in real-time and at very low processing cost. Skinner offers a good overview of what the bitcoin is (see Fig. 2 below).

Main learning point: In “ValueWeb”, Chris Skinner does a great job of demystifying some of the buzz around blockchain technology and bitcoins. By focusing on the value that people can now exchange in real-time, Skinner paints an exciting picture of great opportunities that are are already starting to happen.

Fig. 1 – Mobile as an authentication tool, four key mobile attributes – Taken from: Chris Skinner, “ValueWeb”, p.  47

  • Tokenisation – You can check the customer is who they say they are by locating if they have a second token – a mobile registered to their account – with them.
  • Geo-location – You can geo-locate customers using location. For example, a company called XYVerify does this using telecom masts, rather than a mobile device. The system will establish a person’s location based upon where their signal can be located between different mobile transmitting masts.
  • One Time Passwords (‘OTP’) – You can authenticate who the customer is interactively OTP by text messaging. An interactive text or app-based OTP process means that mobile can offer a great second level authentication tool.
  • Mobile biometrics – Using mobile biometrics can become a very effective way to authenticate customers. For example, Banca Intesa in Spain was using mobile apps for iris recognition and Voice Commerce offer voice verification by mobile.

Fig. 2 – A quick overview of bitcoin – Taken from: Chris Skinner, “ValueWeb”, pp.  81-86

  • New bitcoins are generated by a network bode, and these network nodes are created each time a solution is found to a specific mathematical problem.
  • The people trying to solve these math problems are called miners, and each time they successfully solve the problem they create a new bitcoin.
  • This math challenge is so difficult to solve that there are businesses dedicated to this, with data centres running thousands of computers focused upon bitcoin mining.
  • The reason they do this is that each tine a bitcoin is created, the company or person who solved the problem receives 25 bitcoins, which were $250 each as of August 2015. Hence the bitcoin miners do this to earn virtual currency rewards.
  • Before you can buy any coins you must create a wallet to store them. You can do this by installing the bitcoin client, the software that powers the currency, or use an online wallet, where this data is stored in the cloud.
  • A bitcoin transaction is recorded on a public ledger system called the blockchain. The blockchain is a shared ledger system that means all of our bitcoin wallets can be see publicly.
  • No one knows who made the transaction, but the fact there is an electronic shared ledger ensures transactions cannot be made twice.
  • All confirmed transactions are included in the blockchain. This way, bitcoin wallets can calculate their spendable balance and can be verified to ensure they are spending bitcoins that are actually owned by the spender. The integrity and the chronological order of the blockchain are enforced with cryptography.

 

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Book review: “The Laws of Simplicity”

“Simplicity” almost feels like a magic word, particularly when you’re a product manager or a designer. Last year I wrote about the rise of single purpose apps and mentioned John Maeda’s “Laws of Simplicity”. John Maeda is a well known graphic designer, computer scientist, investor and academic. He’s also an author and I recently read his most popular book, “The Laws of Simplicity”. In this great book, John has outlined 10 laws which define what simplicity actually means and how can you can apply its underlying principles in every day life.

I’ll outline Maeda’s “Ten Laws of Simplicity” and highlight the things I’ve learned from reading his book:

  1. Reduce – “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction”: In short, “reduce” is all about removing functionality as the simplest way to create simplicity. Maeda advises “When in doubt, just remove, but be careful of what you remove.” Maeda uses the “SHE” framework to help make thoughtful reductions (see Fig. 1 below).
  2. Organisation – “Organisation makes a system of many appear fewer”: In order to help people seeing the wood from the trees, Maeda introduces another acronym: “SLIP”. SLIP stands for: Sort, Label, Integrate, Prioritise (see Fig. 2 below).
  3. Time – “Savings in time feel like simplicity”: The underlying idea about reducing the user frustration caused by time wasted. When any interaction with products or services happens quickly, we attribute this efficiency to the perceived simplicity of experience. If speeding up a process isn’t an option, Maeda suggests that giving extra care to a customer will make the experience of waiting more tolerable.
  4. Learn – “Knowledge makes everything simpler”: Maeda introduces another acronym here, called “BRAIN”. BRAIN stands for: Basics, Repeat, Avoid, Inspire, Never (see Fig. 3 below). He also points out that the best designers are those who marry function with form to create intuitive experiences that we understand immediately.
  5. Differences – “Simplicity and complexity need each other”: The more complexity there is in the market, the more that something simpler stands out. While technology is growing in complexity, there’s a clear benefit to differentiating by offering products which are simple and easy to use. That said, establishing a feeling of simplicity in design requires making complexity consciously available in some explicit form.
  6. Context – “What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely no peripheral”: This law relates to a common trade-off between providing people with direction versus leaving them to explore for themselves. “How directed can I stand to feel?” versus “How directionless can I afford to be?”
  7. Emotion – “More emotions are better than less”: Even though simplification is the core premise of Maeda’s book, he makes the case for adding functionality – and thus violating the first law of “Reduce” – arguing that this is allowed for the “right kind of more: feel, and feel for.”
  8. Trust – “In simplicity we trust”: The law of “trust” is about the tension between the effort required to learn about a system on the one hand and the trust offered by the system on the other.
  9. Failure – “Some things can never be made simple”: Maeda acknowledges that not all attempts to create simple products will succeed. He states that “there’s always an ROF (Return on Failure) when you try to simplify – which is to learn from your mistakes.”
  10. The One – Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful: The tenth and last law of simplicity is to capture a number of ideas which Maeda felt didn’t fit neatly into a single law. He therefore devised three “keys”: Away, Open and Power (see Fig. 4 below).

Main learning point: Even though “The Laws of Simplicity” was published nearly ten years ago, its content still feels incredibly timely and relevant. If anything, for me the book makes it clear that ‘simplicity’ is not as straightforward as it might sound. Maeda provides some key principles that underpin the concept of simplicity, whilst being honest about some of the challenges involved in simplifying products.

 

Fig. 1 – SHE (Shrink, Hide, Embody) – Taken from: John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity

  • Shrink: As technology is shrinking, i.e. becoming ‘smaller’ and yet more powerful, this approach is about designs conveying the impression of being smaller, lesser and humbler. This means that as a user your expectations of the product will still be fulfilled even though you might not think so, purely from looking at the product.
  • Hide: “Hide the complexity through brute-force methods.” The Swiss army knife is a great example of this technique since only the tool that you wish to use is exposed, while the other blades and drivers are hidden.
  • Embody: Maeda makes the point that as features go into hiding and products shrink, it becomes ever more important to embed the product with a sense of the value that is lost after Shrink and Hide. It’s about creating the perception of quality, which can be done through marketing or product design.

Fig. 2 – SLIP (Sort, Label, Integrate, Prioritise) – Taken from: John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity

  • Sort: Sort and group information
  • Label: Each group needs a relevant name
  • Integrate: Whenever possible, integrate groups that appear significantly like each other
  • Prioritise: Using Pareto’s 80/20 rule is a helpful tool when deciding where to start

Fig. 3 – BRAIN (Basics, Repeat, Avoid, Inspire, Never) – Taken from: John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity

  • BASICS are the beginning
  • REPEAT yourself often
  • AVOID creating desperation
  • INSPIRE with examples
  • NEVER forget to repeat yourself

Fig. 4 – Three keys (Away, Open, Power) – Taken from: John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity

  • Key 1 – Away: The main principle here is that “more appears like less by simply moving it far, far away.” When you do outsourcing or moving a task it’s important to retain a level of communication with this task.
  • Key 2 – Open: “Openness simplifies complexity.” Examples of this approach are “open source” technology and Application Programming Interfaces (‘APIs)’. Public availability is the main characteristic that both examples have in common.
  • Key 3 – Power: “Use less, gain more.” This principle is quite literally about the dependency on (battery) power for a lot of devices and technologies. The idea is that not having enough (battery) power doesn’t necessarily need to be total disaster: “in the field of design there is the belief that with more constraints, better solutions are revealed.”

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Maeda
  2. http://usabilitypost.com/2010/02/07/the-laws-of-simplicity/
  3. http://betterexplained.com/articles/understanding-the-pareto-principle-the-8020-rule/
  4. http://www.ted.com/talks/john_maeda_on_the_simple_life?language=en
  5. http://www.quora.com/What-are-examples-of-emotional-design
  6. http://thenextweb.com/apps/2012/02/15/review-how-a-simple-list-app-called-clear-may-change-how-we-use-our-devices-forever/

Image credits: http://www.tedxtokyo.com/en/talk/john-maeda/

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Book review: “The Lean Enterprise”

Most of the product people or businesses that I speak to all seem to want one thing: to be ‘lean’. They all nod when you talk about wasting resources on making products that no wants to buy. They’ve picked up on the approach adopted by many successful startups who have got the capacity to learn and adapt rapidly to what customers want.

However, large corporations have struggled to adopt ‘lean’ practices and to create a culture in which the focus is on “continuous learning”. Are big corporates geared towards releasing products in small iterations and accepting failure in the process? Trevor Owens and Obie Hernandez have published The Lean Enterprise, which is about large corporations adopting a lean startup mindset and which provides practical tools on how to best do so.

Why The Lean Enterprise? What is it?

“Why do large companies need to adopt a lean attitude to product development?” is the first question that the “The Lean Enterprise” raises.  Here are some common characteristics of large companies :

  • Need to improve speed to market
  • Losing against faster, more nimble competitors
  • No room for innovation or quick response to market or consumer changes
  • A culture of “decisions take ages” or, worse, “things don’t get done around here”

I guess the main message which underpins “The Lean Enterprise” is that big businesses need to adopt “lean” practices which have been adopted by lots of (successful) startups.

“Lean Startups” (a term coined by Eric Ries in the eponymous book) are geared towards determining “product/market fit” in the quickest and most efficient way possible. “The Lean Enterprise” is all about big businesses becoming more like lean startups.

But can large companies really become leaner?

The main premise of “The Lean Enterprise” is that large enterprise can:

  • Create or acquire a company which is like a large company’s ‘lean playground’
  • Act like a “lean startup” by applying lean startup practices

I agree with Owens and Hernandez’ point that large corporations at their core are not geared towards fast pace innovation. To overcome this, the book suggests creating an “Innovation Colony” via internal incubation, acquisition or investment:

“An innovation colony is an outpost where entrepreneurially minded employees and talented marketers, engineers, and designers from outside the enterprise can build new products and services, bring them to market and, share in the fruits of their success.”

However, the idea of an “Innovation Colony” seems to be closely modeled to “Skunkworks”, which dates back to the Fifties. The Skunkworks concept has had varying degrees of success. Even if large businesses succeed in creating an autonomous unit, I wonder if the mindset and autonomy is really there for these skunkworks to launch great innovative products.

How do you inject a lean mindset of experimentation and ‘failing fast’ into organisations that have a long lasting legacy of a slow speed to market or a well ingrained culture of bureaucracy. The Lean Enterprise provides a lot of detail around lean concepts such as “product / market validation” and “innovation thesis”, but I wish it could have elaborated more on the mindset required to be be truly lean and autonomous.

I wonder if it might not be easier to create a lean mindset in-house and across the organisation, rather than going down the route of creating a skunkworks unit where the large company issues might still resurface. I would love to know more about how to best tackle some of the aforementioned problems ‘at source’ and at scale.

How do you transform a large company with an ‘oil tanker mindset’ into a nimble speed boat? What does it take to get people to buy into such a transformation? I expected The Lean Entrepreneur to focus more on such questions, as I am just not convinced that creating an Innovation Colony is the best way to making large companies more lean. Having listened recently to a talk by Shah Shelbe in which he spoke about introducing an entrepreneurial mindset into large corporates such as Boeing, I’m curious to find out more about best ways to transform cultures and mentalities of large companies, making them more nimble and entrepreneurial.

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Book review: “User Story Mapping”

Three years ago I wrote about Jeff Patton’s “Story Mapping”. I described this technique as a great tool to help design and develop products (see Fig. 1 below for a good example of a Story Map). Jeff Patton has now written a book about this technique, titled “User Story Mapping”.

Patton is a well-known user experience (‘UX’) specialist. He starts “User Story Mapping” by stating that “story maps are for breaking down big stories as you tell them.” His point is about telling stories instead of concentrating solely on what should be written. Patton subsequently explains about “talk and doc”; this technique helps you to externalise your thinking as you map the different stories.

“User Story Mapping” then goes on to describe the aspects involved in mapping user stories – taking an idea, mapping it and talking about it:

  1. Frame your idea – For me, the ability to put structure around your product idea is one of the most important benefits of Patton’s story mapping technique. Patton urges us to focus on “desired outcomes” for a specific group of customers and users (see Fig. 2 below). Once you’ve gone through the exercise of figuring out what to build, for whom and why, it should be much easier to prioritise development work. As Patton explains, the ultimate goal is “to minimise the amount we build.”
  2. Breadth over depth –  Patton recommends focusing on the breadth of a story first, before delving into the depth of it. This means starting with mapping big activities first, and then breaking these down into smaller, more detailed stories. I’ve included a good real-life example from the book in Fig. 3 below. After covering breadth, you can then start exploring details and options per individual user story: What are the specific things my target user would do here? What are alternative things they could do? What would make it really cool? What about when things go wrong?
  3. The backbone organises the story map – With a story map, one typically starts with a “backbone”, which is formed at the top of the map. One level can be a basic and high level flow of the story. When this first flow gets too long, you can use the row below to summarise some of the stories.
  4. Focus on outcomes – For me, the key of “User Story Mapping” is the point that Patton makes about focusing on outcomes instead of features. “Focus on outcomes – what users need to do and see when the system comes out – and slice out releases that will get you those outcomes.” He then goes on to stress that the secret to prioritisation is to prioritise outcomes and not features.
  5. Minimum viable product – Paton takes a leaf out of Eric Ries‘ book by talking about what makes a “Minimum Viable Product” (‘MVP’). You can see how you can use story maps to slice out stories to make up an MVP. Patton debunks the myth that MVP stands for “the crappiest product you could possibly release.” By contrast, Patton reminds us that the MVP is “the smallest product release that successfully achieves its desired outcomes.” Also, an MVP is the smallest thing you can create or do to prove or disprove a (risky) assumption.
  6. Start by discussing your opportunity – The first story discussion should be about framing the opportunity, suggests Patton. This is very much akin to the “opportunity assessment”, which product guru Marty Cagan introduced a number of years ago. An important part of this initial assessment of the opportunity is to establish whether the problem that you’re looking to solve really exists (see Fig. 5 below).
  7. Exposing risk in the story map – For me, being “Lean” is all about managing risk. User story mapping can help you to identify and mitigate risk early on in the product development process. Story maps are a great way to make risks visible (see Fig. 6 below) and serve as a starting point for a conversation about how to best manage risk.
  8. How to create a story map? – Chapter 5 of “User Story Mapping” is all about how to go about creating a story map. Patton provides a good overview of the steps involved in creating a story map as part of a collaborative process. I’ve listed these steps in Fig. 7 below.
  9. It’s about the conversation! – So you’ve created a story map, so what!? I’ve learned over the last few years that the critical part of creating a user story map is the conversation around it. Getting the right people in the room to create a shared understanding of the user problem(s) to address is a critical first step. The next, but equally important step, is to use the story map is a reference point for conversation and collaboration. Patton provides a very useful “checklist of what to really talk about”, which I’ve included in Fig. 8 below.

Main learning point: User story mapping is a great tool for anyone who wants to create a structure and conversation around a user problem or a product idea. Jeff Patton’s technique makes you take a step back and think through the problem(s) you’re looking to solve. “User Story Mapping” thus provides a very valuable framework to anyone involved in product development.

Fig. 1 – Example of a User Map – Taken from: http://www.barryovereem.com/the-user-story-mapping-game/

UserStoryMap

Fig. 2 – Frame your idea – Taken from: Jeff Patton – User Story Mapping, pp. 8-11

  • What is it?
  • Why build it?
  • What will happen when you do?
  • Type of users?
  • Types of activities people would use the product for?

Fig. 3 – “Mimi’s Big Story” – Taken from: Jeff Patton – User Story Mapping, p. 13

At the top of the user story map you’ll see big activities like:

  • Signing up
  • Changing my service
  • Viewing my band stats
  • Publicising a show
  • Viewing promotions online

“Publicising a show” was a big thing. It broke down into these steps arranged left to right underneath the “Publicising the show” card.

  • Start a show promotion
  • Review the promo flyer Mimi created for me
  • Customise the promo flyer
  • Preview the promo flyer I created

Fig. 4 – Anatomy of a User Story Map – Taken from: http://www.slideshare.net/bradswanson/lean-startup-story-mapping-awesome-products-faster

lean-startup-story-mapping-awesome-products-faster-15-638 Fig. 5 – Start by discussing your opportunity – Taken from: Jeff Patton – User Story Mapping, pp. 38

  • What is the big idea?
  • Who are the customers?
  • Who are the users?
  • Why would they want it?
  • Why are we building it?

Fig. 6 – Adding risk stories to make risk visible – Taken from: http://www.slideshare.net/AgileME/jason-jones-agileme2015

user-stories-and-user-story-mapping-by-jason-jones-11-638

Fig. 7 – Creating a story map – Taken from: Jeff Patton – User Story Mapping, pp. 67 – 77

  1. Write out your story a step at a time – Start with user tasks; how do you expect people to use your product or software to achieve their goals?
  2. Organise your story – Organise your stories in a left-to-right flow with what you did first on the left, and what you did later on the right. Maps are organised left-to-right using a narrative flow: this is the order in which you’d tell the story.
  3. Explore alternative stories – Once you’ve got a basic narrative flow in place, you’d want to consider edge cases, alternatives, exceptions and capture these in stories. In other words: your basic narrative flow forms the “backbone” or a “happy path”, and the alternative stories are in the “body” of a story map.
  4. Distill your map to a backbone –  At this stage, your user story map is likely to look pretty wide and expansive. This is a good point to take a step back and identify clusters of stories that go together. Creating a backbone of your story map is about grouping stories. Patton refers to these groupings as “activities”. These activities aggregate tasks directed at a common goal. Activities and high-level tasks form the backbone of a story map.
  5. Slice out tasks that help you reach a specific outcome – This is the bit where you focus on a specific outcome and where you extract those tasks and related details relevant to the outcome.

Fig. 8 – A checklist of what to really talk about – Taken from: Jeff Patton – User Story Mapping, pp. 104 – 107

  • Really talk about who – Don’t just talk about “the user.” Be specific. Talk about which user you mean.
  • Really talk about what – Start the user stories with user tasks – the things that people want to do with my product.
  • Really talk about why  Talk about why the specific user cares. Talk about why other users care. Talk about why the user’s company cares. Talk about why business stakeholders care.
  • Talk about what’s going on outside the software – Talk about where people using your product are when they use it. Talk about when they’d use the product, and how often.
  • Talk about what goes wrong –  What happens when things go wrong? What happens when the system is down? How else could users accomplish this? How do they meet their needs today?
  • Talk about questions and assumptions – Take time to question your assumptions. Do you really understand your users? Is this really what they want? Do they really have these problems? Also question your technical assumptions. What underlying systems do we rely on? Do they really work the way we think? Are there any technical risks we need to consider?
  • Talk about better solutions – The really big win comes when those in a story conversation discard some original assumptions about what the solution should be, go back to the problem they’re trying to solve, and then together arrive at a solution that’s more effective and economical to build.
  • Talk about how – Talk about the “how” as well as about the “what”. Patton explains the risk of people assuming that a particular solution or the way it’s implemented is a “requirement.” Without explicitly talking about “how”, it’s difficult to think about the cost of the solution. Because, if a solution is too expensive, then it may not be a good option.
  • Talk about how long – Ultimately, we need to make some decisions to go forward with building something or not. And it’s tough to make this sort of buying decision without a price tag. For software, that usually means how long it’ll take to write the code.

Book Review: “Big Bang Disruption”

After reading “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey A. Moore, I read “Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the age of Devastating Innovation” by Larry Downes and Paul Nunes.

I could stop the book review right here by saying that the product lifecycle of a traditional product looks very different to that of a “Big Bang Disruptor”. The traditional market adoption model looks more like a Bell curve, whereas the Big Bang adoption model looks more like a cliff (see Fig. 1 below). Let’s delve into the characteristics of a “Big Bang Disruptor” a bit more:

  1. What defines a “Big Bang Disruptor”? – The book mentions three broadly defined characteristics which define a “Big Bang Disruptor”: (1) Undisciplined Strategy (2) Unconstrained Growth and (3) Unencumbered Development. The words “undisciplined”, “unconstrained” and “unencumbered” clearly indicate that Big Bang Disruptors don’t follow the stages of the traditional market adoption model. Forget about the gradual steps from “early adoption” to “market maturity”, it’s very much about entering the market with a big bang (see Fig. 2 below).
  2. Four stages of Big Bang disruption – The book talks about the four stages of Big Bang disruption: “Singularity”, “Big Bang”, “Big Crunch” and “Entropy”. The main thing I learned in this respect is the extremely rapid growth and decline patterns which characterises most Big Bang Disruptors.
  3. Customer focus – It was interesting to read in “Big Bang Disruption” about the changed role of the customer. Not only is the customer closely involved in product development (“experimentation”), the customer also actively drives marketing rather than the other way around (see Fig. 4 below). As I highlighted above, Big Bang Disruptors totally disrupt traditional market wisdom (see Fig. 5 below).

Main learning point: “Big Bang Disruption” is a great book that will help you to better understand the rapid rise (and decline) of certain companies. The book does a good job in explaining common characteristics of Big Bang Disruptors, showing how traditional market strategies are slowly becoming redundant.

Fig. 1 – Big Bang Market Adoption vs ‘Classic’ product lifecycle – Taken from: http://www.accenture-blogpodium.nl/tag/big-bang-disruption/

Accenture-Big-Bang-Market-Adoption-Graph-large

Fig. 2 – Characteristics of a Big Bang Disruptor – Taken from: Larry Downes and Paul Nunes – Big Bang Disruption

  • Undisciplined Strategy – Undisciplined Strategy means that, rather than concentrating one’s market entry strategy on a specific aspect – operational excellence, product leadership or customised offerings – Big Bang Disruptors will try to compete on all three strategic values at one. They will offer products or services that are both better and cheaper than the incumbents.
  • Unconstrained Growth – As highlighted in Fig. 1 above, the typical growth pattern of a Big Bang Disruptor is nearly vertical, a “winner takes all” model. This is in stark contrast with the more traditional Bell curve whereby growth tends to be more gradual. Big Bang Disruptors are typically fast-cycle products that often don’t have “early adopters”. Instead, there are effectively two user groups: “trial users” (who are closely involved in product development) and “everyone else”. Unconstrained Growth comes down to faster growth but also rapid obsolescence, hence the “cliff” like shape of the Big Bang model (see Fig. 1 above).
  • Unencumbered Development – In the book, Downes and Nunes describe a Big Bang Disruptor as “simply an experiment that goes very well”. They explain how the availability of off-the-shelve components enables companies to quickly build and launch a whole range of products, and see which of these products takes hold.

Fig. 3 – The four stages of big bang disruption – Taken from: Larry Downes and Paul Nunes – Big Bang Disruption

  • The Singularity – The key characteristic of this phase is the amount of failed product experiments which signal the change that’s about to arrive.
  • The Big Bang – Users abandon old products in favour of new products and services.
  • The Big Crunch – This phase signals a quick implosion of Big Bang Disruptors. At this stage, innovation becomes incremental and growth slows.
  • Entropy – This is the last phase of dying industries and the stage is set for the next bunch of disruptors to enter the market.

Fig. 4 – Comparison of conventional wisdom against Big Bang wisdom – Taken from: http://brandgenetics.com/big-bang-disruption-speed-summary/

12 rules of big bang

 

Fig. 5 – The 12 Rules of Big Bang Disruption – Taken from: Larry Downes and Paul Nunes – Big Bang Disruption

  • Rule 1. Consult Your Truth-Tellers Find industry visionaries who see the future more clearly than you do, and who won’t sugarcoat it even when you want them to.
  • Rule 2. Pinpoint Your Market Entry  Learn to separate the little bumps from the Big Bangs,choosing just the perfect moment to enter a new ecosystem.
  • Rule 3. Launch Seemingly Random Market Experiments – Practice combinatorial innovation directly in the market, collaborating with suppliers, customers, and investors – who may be one and the same.
  • Rule 4. Survive Catastrophic Success  Prepare to scale up from experiment to global brand in the space of months, if not weeks, and to redesign your technical and business architecture even while running at full speed. Watch for emerging standards that signal the maturing of winning technologies
  • Rule 5. Capture Winner-Take-All Markets  Sacrifice everything, including short-term profits, to ensure victory in winner-take-all markets, especially when success with one disruptor can be leveraged into follow-on products that can be created and launched even faster than the original.
  • Rule 6. Create Bullet Time  Judiciously employ litigation and legislation to slow the progress of disruptors, even as you proceed with your own experiments, partnerships, and well-timed acquisitions.
  • Rule 7. Anticipate Saturation  When consumers adopt and then abandon new products and services all at once, it’s essential not to be caught with excess capacity or inventory. You need to anticipate saturation before it happens and to scale down as quickly as you scaled up. Poorly timed purchases – whether of raw materials, inventories, or of companies whose value is about to peak – can wreak havoc with your balance sheet.
  • Rule 8. Shed Assets Before They Become Liabilities  As one generation of disruptors fades, related assets -factories, distribution networks, and intellectual property – can lose value, gradually and then suddenly. Knowing the right time to sell, and to whom, can mean the difference between your ability to develop the next disruptor and bankruptcy. Knowing which assets to keep for the next cycle of innovation is equally important.
  • Rule 9. Quit While You’re Ahead  Even if – especially if – you’ve dominated your industry for decades. The replacement of core technologies with new disruptors can wipe out all your retained earnings quickly if you allow it to. Courageous executives accept the inevitable, and announce their exit from current markets while they are still strong. Doing so gives you more time to move to a new ecosystem. Even better, it forces competitors to change on your schedule.
  • Rule 10. Escape Your Own Black Hole As the lone remaining incumbent, it may seem as if there’s no more competition to worry about. But beware the deadly behavior of your older products and services once better and cheaper alternatives are readily available. Legacy costs, legacy customers, and legacy regulation make it harder, not easier, to compete.
  • Rule 11. Become Someone Else’s Components  As humbling as the idea may sound, companies trapped in Entropy often find their best hope is to shut down retail business and transform into a supplier of parts and other resources for innovators in markets emerging elsewhere. When you’re losing the war, in other words, become an arms merchant.
  • Rule 12. Move to a New Singularity  Co-opt the tools of the disruptors and their investors, and use them to relocate your remaining assets to a healthier ecosystem. Sponsoring hackathons, opening innovation centers for entrepreneurs, and excelling at corporate venture capital can often buy you the access and equity you need to catch up for lost time and missed opportunities in the early stages.