Bits & Pieces?
Waiting in a doctor’s office the other day I picked up an old Time magazine and was intrigued by the Tali Sharot cover story, “The Optimism Bias.” For the most part I consider myself a glass-half-full sort of gal, so I wondered what the latest word on the street was about my type.
The premise of the article is that most people are pre-wired to see the world through rose-colored glasses. Most of us tend to believe we will find a job, that our start-up business will succeed, that our marriage will not end in divorce, that we will not suffer from health issues – even though we are fully aware of the likelihood of these things happening to people. But in each of our individual brains, we subconsciously insert the word “other” before the word “people.”
Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness back up these observations. In one study prior to the start of a class session, MBA students were asked about how they would perform in the class in relation to the other students. Knowing full well that 50% of the students would be in the top half of the class and 50% would be in the bottom, only 5% of the students indicated that they would fall into that bottom half. Over 50% felt they would be in the top 20%.
According to scientists, as the human brain evolved, we developed a unique ability to distinguish between past, present and future events and move between these timeframes with relative ease. Interestingly, despite this ability, when people are asked to describe how they think an event in the future will go – something that they have done before - they almost invariably describe that event with more positive details than would be reflective of the similar experience they’ve had in the past. A trip to the grocery story might be described with the purchase of many healthy food choices, a vacation described without a single glitch, a project that exceeds expectations and is delivered within budget and early!
While this perspective on future events can leave us ill prepared to deal with deviations, it is because of this ability to compartmentalize and tuck away the negative that we are able to make progress at all. It allows us to take risks, it allows us to hope, it allows us to build upon things previously done without the fear of, at least, total devastation.
So one might think an optimistic leadership style would be best, wouldn’t you?
Not so fast. Do you know what Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. have in common? Recognized as great leaders – great leadership during times of tumultuous change even. That would be true. But also, they were all pessimists. Depressed. Mentally Ill. Suicidal even. Nassir Ghaemi collected that research for his article “Depression in Command.”
Ghaemi supports the findings that reveal a “positive illusion” in people that are mentally healthy. On the contrary, he adds that people that are mildly depressed tend to see the world more clearly, more as it is. They are more willing to admit their mistakes and even change course midstream as reality requires. In addition, Ghaemi offers research that shows a correlation between depression and high degrees of empathy – a greater concern for how others think and feel.
In crisis times on the worldwide stage – or during critical transition periods in the life of a business – pessimistic leaders don’t suspend the reality, they embrace it. Where an optimist is very happy (literally) to stay the course and forge ahead with positive thinking, those that refuse to (or can’t, maybe) let go of the ugly details of what could happen are more likely to use those details to see different opportunities that others cannot imagine.
Successful tech entrepreneur and investor Ben Horowitz also addresses the traits of two leadership styles in his post “Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO.” While Horowitz does not specifically address the mental health of these managers, the comparissons he offers do align with some common interpretations of optimism vs. pessimism. Some examples:
- Peacetime CEO knows what to do with a big advantage. Wartime CEO is paranoid.
- Peacetime CEO strives to tolerate deviations from the plan when coupled with effort and creativity. Wartime CEO is completely intolerant.
- Peacetime CEO works to minimize conflict. Wartime CEO heightens the contradictions.
While the disparities of these leadership styles may be most highly exploited within top-level government endeavors and global business initiatives, an understanding of these differences is relevant all the way down to the smallest of agencies. On a daily basis we are engaging in smaller “peacetime” growth initiatives with some of our clients and “wartime” tactical operatives with others. For this reason, it is critical to create an environment that supports and encourages both those that pushback, doubt and question as well as the eager optimists.
While there may be organizations that have been built to include only go-getter-super-optimistic types, my guess is that most companies, most agencies, have a mix of people that are scattered along the spectrum of optimism. To be able to appreciate the benefits that this mix can create is to maximize the functionality of your team and your organization.
Yesterday, in the first part of this post, I was thinking it was time for some Business Process Management (BPM) applied to our agency Status meeting. To briefly recap, BPM is a company’s ongoing (or semi-annual at least) equivalent to closet-cleaning, and it allows us to shed unnecessary process rituals in favor of newer, more efficient processes and (ideally) increased nimbleness.
Today we’ll look at a quick and easy way to sort through a process ritual in order to determine if it has the appropriate level of purpose and value or whether it no longer makes sense.
Speaking of closet-cleaning, I think the process of cleaning out a closet offers a good template. Everyone knows (well, I guess it depends on how much Oprah you’ve watched), that there are just a few easy questions you can ask to determine whether a garment should remain in your closet – or whether it should be placed in the keep, toss or repair pile.
- Have you worn it in the past 1.5 years?
- Does it fit/is it flattering?
- Is it the image you want to portray?
Cleaning out a process-closet can be a bit trickier than cleaning out your personal wardrobe though. Imagine that you share your clothes with a group – or maybe even all – of your co-workers. The decision making must involve the whole team. BPM is not easy, but the more we practice the better we can get at it.
So we haven’t had Status in months, but it hasn’t yet been years. It’s not completely forgotten, we still think about it quite often. So in that sense, it’s still a keeper.
Does it fit and flatter? My guess is no. Well, at least it wasn’t fitting everyone. Something about status wasn’t working – too long/not long enough, too many people/not enough people/not the right people, wrong time of day/week, not valuable enough, etc. It was probably all these things! So now we know it’s not in the keep pile – but should we toss it or repair it?
At a very basic level, the purpose of any status meeting is to keep work flowing. In theory, the rest of the week we work independently or in smaller project teams and it’s plausible that during this time we move away from each other. Status is about course correction and being one cohesive business unit. Is this the image we want to portray? I would say yes, absolutely.
So, now we know. We will keep Status, but it needs alterations before it’s ready to rock again.
From this point, it’s just a quick business analysis exercise to discover who uses Status, what each user expects from Status and how Status can be modified to deliver the most value to the highest percentage of users. Certainly not an insignificant task, but much more digestible now that we have a better understanding of the value.
It’s particularly easy to come in and do this sort of closet cleaning/process optimization when you are new to an organization. We’ve noticed that our OrangeAid interns have a unique ability to ask us why we cut the ends off of our ham – among other things. But you don’t have to be an intern or a newbie or even a process-oriented individual to initiate these sorts of evaluations.
The closet-cleaning model is just one way to keep things fun and easy. More important than how you go about it is that you have good dialog about it within the agency and that and you do it. Get in a room, focus on one closet at a time, and start sorting through what works and what doesn’t. Not only does this foster a progressive energy within the agency but it provides the necessary meaning to the process rituals that give each agency their structure and strength.
I ran into a blog post about rituals last week and it was just enough to get my mind going – thinking about the things that I do in my personal life and the things that are part of our culture here at work that are …well, maybe not as necessary as we might think they are. It reminded me of a story – an old wives tale perhaps – of a young woman that cuts the ends off the ham as she prepares it to go into the oven for Easter dinner.
“Mommy,” the daughter asks, “why do you cut the ends off the ham?”
“Hmm, I don’t know sweetheart– I do it because that’s what my mom did. Let’s ask your grandma.”
“Mom, why did you cut the ends off of your ham?”
After some thought she said, “Well, I don’t really know, my mother always did that. Let’s ask your Grandmother.”
“Mother, why did you cut the ends of the ham?” “Because it didn’t fit in my pan,” she says.
Many of our processes, rituals perhaps, were born out of necessity at one point – but what about now?
My thoughts brought me to consider our weekly agency status meeting – here we just call it “Status” – with a capital S. We haven’t had Status in months (gasp!) And here’s the crazy part: no one has died (well, not yet anyway).
But we’re not universally comfortable with its absence. There are ongoing discussions about implementing it again – but always with some hesitation. Is our Status the equivalent of cutting off the ends of the ham? I think it might be time for us to dust off our Business Process Management hats so that we can really be sure of what we should do. Business Process Management (BPM) is a company’s ongoing (or semi-annual at least) equivalent to closet-cleaning, and it allows us to shed unnecessary process rituals in favor of newer, more efficient processes and (ideally) increased nimbleness.
I’m not talking about putting all the day-to-day work on hold and transforming ourselves into some sort of process scientists, with lab coats and safety glasses, punching numbers into gigantic IBMs to generate productivity graphs. Rather just a couple of hours at least of concentrated effort on process optimization in the interest of keeping things fresh.
It’s easy to get complacent and comfortable, no doubt! Questioning our rituals requires us to fight the rather trusted notion that if it isn’t broken, there is no need to fix it. And true, eventually things do break down and they are replaced by things that work better out of necessity. But a better/faster way can be discovered as soon as we are open to it if we push ourselves to move ahead for the sake of innovation – way before the necessity is actually realized.
And it’s not that hard. Even just a little BPM can go a long way to keep an organization from getting stuck in the ways of previous generations – or even in the ways of last month. Come back tomorrow for the second half of this post. I’ll share a quick and easy method for examining your business processes so that you can dedicate the most energy on the rituals that have meaning to your organization and do away with those that don’t.
You can read Challenge your rituals Part II here.
I’ve been thinking about the Ben Folds’ song “Bastard” lately. The chorus goes, “Why you gotta act like you know when you don’t know? It’s ok if you don’t know everything.” Those lyrics come to my mind when I encounter someone that strikes me as a know-it-all – someone that is clearly forcing an answer into the space of question just because the space exists. And hey – it takes one to know one. I am this person on MANY occasions. It’s usually me reminding myself that it’s OK to just utter those three simple words: I don’t know. But I bet I’m not alone. I’m sure this is rooted in how we were brought up as students – a focus on the answer more so than the process of discovering it. Plus, there’s just that amazing feeling of being right.
But one of the things that makes us know-it-alls annoying, as well as harmful, is that we’re not always right – or there’s no way to prove whether we are or we aren’t. Yet we hop into the answer hole so fast, we often (unintentionally on my part at least) discourage others from seeking another (equally or even, gasp! more right) answer.
Now before you think this is just some personal rant, let me make a connection. In an earlier post on agile development I referenced the somewhat controversial statement out of 37 Signals as they contend that the planning process that is part of most traditional development cycles is simply guessing – and that guessing is dangerous. We also took a look at the difference between that traditional development cycle of Learn > Make > Test and the agile cycle of Make> Test> Learn.
In a traditional environment the learning is scheduled up front. A lot of good primary and secondary research is done and, when combined with our experience, produces valuable insights that then feed our strategy, design and execution. But these insights – much like the planning I believe 37 Signals had in mind – are really just (educated) guesses. And unfortunately, those guesses serve as the “answer” deliverable and that task of seeking answers is often considered closed after that inital phase.
An agile environment certainly is not void of upfront research and insights – but there is focus on getting to them fast and treating them as valuable, but temporary. We’re forced to leave the space of the question open for a while and that can be uncomfortable! And it’s uncomfortable for most clients too! No one wants to say, “We’re not sure, let’s just try it and see.” But we have to. It’s the best chance our next website/social campaign/”killer app” has. The agile agency must fight to be metrics-driven – meaning learning and acting based on measuring the first build. Not just collecting the data, but genuinely seeking answers that potentially prove our insights wrong – and having the time and budget allocated to be iterative.
Now back to the song. I don’t think Folds is on any sort of personal rant either. I think he just wants to say that there is something very special – whimsical yet substantial – about discovering life’s truths – the details of which can be largely missed if we rush into knowing. Which, strangely, has amazing relevance to our lives in an agile agency.
Today’s post is a follow up to my post from a couple of weeks ago on agile development.
Last time I focused on a few definitive characteristics of an agile environment – many of which Sue Spaight highlighted on originally in her SxSW session recap. There are a couple of things that I’ve run into since then that have me thinking, so I thought I would share them. Primarily my muse for the past week has been a presentation on Slide Share by digital agency Made by Many, Agile Planning, Learning to Iterate.
First off, let’s be clear – the type of evolution I’m talking about is digital integration beyond what many are just addressing now. “Marketing, Advertising; please meet Technology – I think you guys should get to know each other.” Yes, beyond that. And beyond a campaign support cast of minisite, banner ads and a Facebook page. Tim Malbon, founding partner at Made by Many, in a comment to his own Oct 7, 2009 post said, “I’m certainly not arguing that everything should be digital. Rather that digital platforms are increasingly ‘the glue’ that makes the sum of the parts greater.” This means fundamentally innovating the way a brand is available for and useful to a consumer. Innovation is change, change is new, new requires development. Smart and fast development.
So I’m thinking about two basic, but big, concepts of such smart and fast development and how they would require some fairly profound changes in the way we think and act.
Basic Concept #1: At the heart of the agile methodology is the MVP – the “Minimally Viable Product,” defined as such by Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup. It’s not that the product is not well planned – or just half-baked. It’s fully planned to be the product that will be the least burdened, that will meet the critical needs of a specific target market and that will be viable enough to test and learn from.
Corresponding Agency Paradigm Shift: Planning is guessing. This statement in the book Getting Real, by software development firm 37 Signals, seems to be either interesting or insulting – or BOTH, depending on your perspective. For the planners of the world – the strategists, the researchers, those of us that just value logic – this is harsh! The word “guessing” connotes carelessness. Guessing is irresponsible. Guessing is what we do when we have no idea. On the contrary, we have a lot of great ideas. Our plans are based on really legitimate fact and well-studied trends, but still we are guessing/predicting what will happen. In agile, the quicker we can develop an MVP that is based on our top 5 (or so) “guesses,” the quicker we’ll be able to PROVE IT. If we don’t KNOW, we should make our best guess and move forward so we can test.
Basic Concept #2: Iteration. So after we have the MVP, then comes iteration. Where the cycle of traditional project management/product development would go learn>make>test, an agile environment needs to embrace make>test>learn. This process MUST include iteration because an agile (or “lean”) agency would have planned (guessed, if you will) that they might learn a thing or two once the product got out in front of the early adapters (or perhaps the brand fans/followers).
Corresponding Agency Paradigm Shift: Not only do we need to embrace iteration, but our clients do as well. I think it’s not completely random that we look to start-ups when we seek the best agile performers. It’s because they started from scratch! Agile developers seek agile-friendly client? Done! But for agencies contemplating this metamorphosis while at the same time crafting campaign work with existing and beloved, I might add, clients – it is more complicated. Committing to iteration means committing to something longer term. It’s taking a bigger step. The Made by Many deck hits on the distinction between iterative and incremental. Incremental means to build “it” in parts – Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3, etc. – smaller steps to reach a whole. Each phase has a launch date and a subsequent phase rarely has anything to do with learning about or altering the prefacing phase. Iterative means to build “it” completely the first time, then build it AGAIN.
There is some fear on the part of agencies of even going there (Do we have the right people/processes? How will this change our relationship with our clients? How much does it cost? ) And there is no doubt some legitimate questions on the part of the client as well (Is the risk too big? How will we sell this to the CEO? How much does it cost?) Iterative is making a commitment together (agency and client) to the product and to the product’s responsibility to the (ever-changing) end users.
This is not a journey all agencies will choose to navigate. And it may not be the right path for all clients. Certainly there has already been a share of agency splits and start-ups over this leap within our industry.
The way we see it here though, it’s lose-lose if we worry too much about rocking the boat (both our own as well as our clients’). To stay relevant in what Malbon described as our current “rapidly mutating media convergence culture,” we’re having some tough heart-to-hearts about our digital future. If our clients aren’t demanding this, don’t we owe it to them to get them there?
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