Failing Fast Is Not Just For Startups – It’s For Relationships Too

As loathe as I am to admit it, your hero (in the event you are joining us here for the first time, that would be yours truly) makes the occasional mistake.  Right now you are thinking my first mistake is that I wrote this just after Halloween and not on April Fools Day.  However, I can assure you that despite a reputation in my field for both relative infallibility and rampaging masculinity, only the latter is truly a constant.   

Before I get to my point here, let’s have a heart to heart in the way that only two loose associates on the internet can have with each other.

  1. Have you ever dated someone who was clearly toxic to you but that you stayed with for some reason, hoping things would get better even when your friends and family warned you that perhaps nearly getting into a fistfight with a patron at a coffee shop over who was dating you and throwing a dictionary at your head over a balcony was not a good sign of your relationship prospects?  I mean, just as an example.  That could be anybody.
  2. Have you ever avoided having a difficult conversation with a higher-up because you were worried about what the impact of that conversation would be?
  3. You have a handsome and rugged leader who is 230 lbs of ripped muscle – we’ll call him, um, Justus – and don’t want to make waves at work, but you know that you will need to talk to him about wearing his sexy muscle T-shirts into the office because while it’s excellent for team morale it’s a disaster for your marriage.
  4. For those of you who are leaders – have you ever put off having a difficult conversation about someone’s lackluster performance because “I want to give them a bit of grace, this can happen to anyone” or “I just want to hit this release and *then* we can talk about it” or any other number of excuses?  And they are excuses.  Let’s get real.

 

Me neither.  But for those of you that might have done this once or twice (looks back and forth shiftily), I wanted to talk a little bit about Lean principles can save you a lot of time and headache.  To be fair, I’m not really the guy to be talking about this – or maybe I am (DUN DUN DUNNNNNN!) because for a guy that is all about Lean, failing fast, Building, Measuring, and Learning, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve realized I have done a poor job of Learning when it comes to the above.  It’s actually my worst quality.  Now fortunately I’ve got a zillllllion great qualities to make up for this, my humility being the foremost, but this article isn’t about how awesome I am, but how *awesome* you will be for implementing the advice I am failing to implement myself.  Trust me!

One of the central tenets of Lean is the elimination of waste.  So for all of you proponents of Lean Startup, Lean Management, and Lean Muscle like yours truly…when you put off that critical and difficult discussion with a fellow manager who isn’t doing their job properly, with the employee who has been dogging it enough to affect the remainder of their team – you aren’t being Lean.

This sort of thing is terrible, wasteful and it’s all for the same reasons that some startups linger without being released (without ever being released!!) for years (for years!!!) – it’s fear.  Fear that something adverse will happen, fear of destroying a relationship, fear of change, fear of whatever.  Your fear is bull.  You need to kill it.  Or at least you need to work past it.    Your fear is costing your company money.  One day it might even cost you the company itself.

This is where failing fast comes in.  In Startup terms, this means you run an experiment quickly to determine whether the direction you’re taking is worthwhile and you avoid wasting your valuable money and time.  In working with people, it means that it is critical that you fail fast with people so you can succeed with the *right* people as quickly as possible.  Otherwise – again – you’re wasting your valuable money and time.  

To give you an example from my enterprise days, interviews used to happen with an in-person that involved three high-level people including myself.  This was a 90 minute interview that cost roughly $500-$600 per interview depending on the blended rate.  In the interest of fairness all questions needed to be asked even if it was clear after the first 3 minutes that the candidate was not a fit.  After a couple of these failures there was also some pressure to hire because there was a realistic staffing need.  As I didn’t want to hire substandard people for a critical project,  I instituted a simple technical phone screen of 8 fairly basic questions that could be run through in about 5 minutes of time by 1-2 people.  If you passed that interview, you made it onto the next one.  Now, a failed interview didn’t cost $600 to run, it cost $5-10.  That is a savings of more than 98% per interview.  Now multiply it by the 55 interviews we ran to find the 3 candidates we needed and the cost difference here would have been:

$600*55 = $33,000

$10*55 + $600*10 (the number of people that passed the screen) = $550 + $6000 = $6550.

That’s right, just instituting a phone screen for government RFPs saved the government roughly twenty-five thousand dollars on one set of interviews.  Wow, that reads pretty bad-ass now, if I’m perfectly honest.   Might be throwing that one in my profile.

This also goes for poor performers in your organization, or poor management you see in your organization.  When it’s not working, you need to either pivot or throw it away and that unfortunately goes for the people you lead as well.  I have watched poor leaders end up destroying a team because of their fear of confrontation, just as I’ve watched non-productive or even caustic employees slowly kill an energetic and disciplined team when no one acted to stop them.

Unfortunately when it comes to this, the personal side of Lean – I am awwwwwful at it. I’m not going to spin this as some garbage like, “Oh, I’m just too nice.  I want to extend grace”, or something else.  I mean, I’ve got a cold reptilian heart that despises other human beings!!  Why else would I be in the technology field?  

Artist's rendition of the author's right ventricle
Artist’s rendition of the author’s right ventricle

No, this is simply because as much as I will eventually go through confrontation if I have to, I hate it.   But in that avoidance I know that I – and others like me – in the interest of giving people opportunities that they shouldn’t have had, have cost organizations money and more importantly have cost other people time.   I’ve always eventually come around.  But I am open to saying to a wider audience that perhaps I’ve previously come around too late.

 

I’m well aware that there’s a grand dichotomy between a guy who is all about wanting to move fast and eliminate waste with a hardened and sharp-edged uncaring mind, and yet dragging on or delaying difficult conversations to the end of the next millennium.  But that’s the beauty (to bring it annoyingly back to this topic) of Lean – there’s never an end to the Learning, or the Building, or the Measuring.  And now that I’ve Learnt, it’s time to Build and Measure once again!!  Hopefully the benefit of my taking so long to finally Learn is that you, dear reader, can skip that step and go right to the Building and Measuring part yourself.  

Next time: I might reveal a secret about myself that almost no one reading this knows. No, not the gigantic Transformers collection.  The other one!  

Advice From My Father – To *You* – On Father’s Day

[above: artist’s rendition of author’s father]

My father is a great, great man.  Now, almost everyone says that about their fathers, but keep in mind that, frankly, anyone who shares DNA with yours truly is guaranteed to be a genetic mastodon.   Luckily, through what I am about to share with you, this Father’s Day you can have the treasured gift of pretending that he is also *your* father, which more importantly lets you pretend that you and *I* are related.  If that’s too overwhelming for you to accept here, feel free to contact me and I can give you my Paypal details for payment before you read on.

In addition to being a very high-level professional, my father was an amazing and involved parent who fostered my love of technology at an early age *and* taught me a lot about leadership, both in how he led our family and how he led his staff at the office (he was in a leadership role pretty much from the 1st year of his career until the day he retired).   Generally I agree with Clarence Kelland’s statement of “My father didn’t tell me how to live, he only lived and let me watch him do it”, except of course that this post is actually regarding my father, well, telling me how to live!

This is an excerpt from a letter I received from him on my 21st birthday.  This advice went a long way into shaping the person I am today and is almost completely applicable to anyone, with the exception of “Know that I and your Mom will always love you and that we will always be here for you – no matter what” – you’ll have to ask him that one personally.  If reading this benefits you half as much as it has me in the years since I’ve read it, I think you’ll be pretty happy with where you are heading.

I know that parents are biased in favor of their children – so it should be, otherwise we wouldn’t be parents – but I know in my heart that you are genuinely one of the best. Certainly you are that for me. You are a special guy – and a special son. All of these things make me proud of you. And I would like you to know that.

So today on your 21st birthday I would like to share with you some of the things that I think you
should hold on to on your journey through the many other milestones still to come in your life:

Never forget your friends – they are one of the mainstays in life. Always remember and appreciate those who have helped you.

When you have the chance, help them back.

Do your best to bear up under the obstacles and losses that will confront you on the way to where you want to be – they are a part of everybody’s life.

Risk making a mistake from time to time and never look back. A mistake is never a failure. It is an opportunity to begin anew, with learning that we didn’t have before.

Overcome the bitterness that tries hard to accompany defeat and find in times of disappointment, the beauty of tomorrow.

Be a victor over anger.

Smile even when tears would try to wipe you out.

Learn to hate hate and to love love.

Go on even when it would seem good to die.

Look up with unquenchable faith in yourself and in that which you want to be.

Pursue your dreams and make them happen, because that is what the world is made of.

Know that I and your Mom will always love you and that we will always be here for you – no matter what.

And there are several things that I want to wish you – not only for your 21st birthday, but for the whole of your life:

I wish you happiness in whatever you do

I wish you good health

I wish you a mate some day whose love will match your own

I wish you the joys of a family and the memories of good times with your children

I wish you the knowledge of being a good father

I wish you continued friendships that are tried and true

I wish you all the success that I think you very much deserve

I wish you the ability to see yourself as I believe many others around you see you – then you will indeed know what a fine person you are

I wish you love

I wish that the important dreams you have for yourself will come true

I wish you God’s blessing

P.S. I wish for you also the discipline to GO TO CLASS, PICK YOUR CLEAN CLOTHES UP OFF THE FLOOR, BRUSH YOUR TEETH, AND BUY THE BAG-LADY OR THE GUY ON THE STREET A SANDWICH OR A CUP OF COFFEE INSTEAD OF GIVING HIM MONEY THAT HE WILL JUST SPEND ON BOOZE!

With Love,

Dad”

Feedback Like A Startup – Part 1 of a series within a series

Lean!

Kaizen!

Continuous Improvement!!

Buzzword Buzzword!!

If you’ve been screaming these words at yourself in the mirror every morning and whispering them to yourself in your bed as you go to sleep, yet wondering why your enterprise organization is no better at the art of feedback than yesterday…well, let’s be realistic, if you’re doing things like this you’re probably not going to be helped by this article either.  Look!  I just demonstrated honest and open feedback right there, which guarantees that this is an article written by a genius.  

I also am no stranger to receiving feedback myself, like:

  • when my friend Gary informed me in 7th Grade that I actually *didn’t* look cool when wearing my jean jacket and sunglasses indoors for 30 days in a row
  • just yesterday when I had my wife proofread an E-mail I was about to send and informed me “this sounds like it was written by a sanctimonious jerk and not the hero of millions of people that you are” (the astute among you might’ve figured out that she doesn’t have time to proofread *these* articles)
  • when my business partner Matt Corstorphine informed me last week that I actually *didn’t* look cool when wearing my jean jacket and sunglasses indoors for 30 days in a row.

As the above no doubt demonstrates, being a startup or being part of one does not magically guarantee that you will suddenly become very good at getting feedback *or* acting on it.  What I *can* magically guarantee is that some of you reading this article likely stopped at the headline, thinking

Wow.  A startup.  If only I could join a startup.  That’s the ticket.  Iterative feedback.  If only I ran a 3 person organization out of someone’s garage instead of (pick one):

 

  • an enterprise organization full of thousands of people
  • a team of 80 reports
  • a 3 person organization out of someone’s garage

 

  • dancing on top of this speaker at the nightclub,

 

then I could experience the magic of those startup hippies receiving and acting on feedback every single moment of the day.

 

Well, if that dream speaks to you, then hold someone’s hand and chant “kum ba yah”, my friend, because I’m about to reveal to you:

  • the art of getting useful feedback often and how to do it without people trying to throw you out of a window
  • who the MVPs of your organization are when it comes to feedback, regardless of your size
  • what to do with feedback when you get it, including being emotionally prepared for it (what?)
  • the TRUE SECRET behind feedback (related, when you should never, ever, *EVER* ask for it)

 

At least I will when this 2-3 part series concludes, because there’s *no way* you’re going to read a 17 page essay in one shot!  I mean, who comes here to read lengthy treatises anyway, right?  So with that out of the way:

  1. Seek feedback *often*.

While you shouldn’t be harassing people for feedback, you should be looking to get feedback at very regular intervals.  When I say regular intervals I don’t mean to daily levels, as:

  • most people can’t give you quality feedback on a daily basis
  • most people don’t *want* to give you feedback on a daily basis
  • you won’t want to *get* feedback on a daily basis.

I have to put this disclaimer in because I have seen too many organizations who have taken my advice on getting feedback and suddenly started trying to get feedback *all the time*.  In the event you haven’t angered everyone on staff with this, you’re locked into a cycle of thrashing based on feedback versus ever moving forward with a solid direction.

If you are still determined to get daily feedback despite my advice to the contrary, the best way to do so would be to have a daily meeting time-boxed to 3 minutes with about 6 people (30 seconds each).  However, in a lot of large organizations that don’t force much time accountability, your “3 minute stand up” meeting easily turns into 60 minutes without someone ruthlessly moderating, particularly if you have people in that meeting who like to talk or people who simply like to meet all day because, well, that’s what they do.  We’ve all met them, particularly if we’ve ever consulted for large enterprise organizations.

I’ve had the most success in larger organizations when the feedback touchpoint is weekly.  This gives you enough time for people to really think about their feedback and also allows you to have a slightly longer meeting if necessary.

Some of you “Lean Startup” people are likely choking at the advice to even regularly schedule this meeting as “you should get the feedback only when you’ve built and measured!!  Then the learning can commence!  TOYOOOOOTA”   Easy there.   If you are part of a large enterprise organization that doesn’t attempt to book its higher level people into 4h worth of meetings a day, by all means, you don’t need to adhere to a set feedback schedule.  However many times you will find that unlimited flexibility isn’t there for your participants.  While scheduling *another* meeting to react to a meeting seems counter-productive this is often the only way to guarantee someone’s time.

  1.  Exalt and raise up people who are willing to offer you candid and tactful feedback.

You cannot teach someone how to care.  We’ll come back to this one later as this deserves its own article.  But keep that in mind.

People who volunteer their feedback are immensely valuable.  Ideally your team is full of people who give feedback openly and fearlessly, but many people either

  1. don’t care enough to give feedback
  2. aren’t knowledge enough to give feedback
  3. are frightened about giving feedback.  You might scoff at this but in my history with consulting/team building, I’ve heard many people through many orgs say the “I can’t lose this job, I’ve got [a house payment | 7 children | a Rottweiller with very expensive tastes] so I can’t risk offering feedback”.   The fear is real.   Whether you want someone riddled with this kind of fear to be part of your team at all is another article in itself, but this legitimately holds some people back from making change.
  4. would rather just quit rather than offer feedback.  Seriously.  There are people out there who are so discussion/conflict-averse they would sooner leave the job than give feedback at all.

From the startup perspective, I can tell you that without the feedback our team received during private beta, you would have seen a radically different inContract than the one currently servicing high-performing freelance management consultants and the companies that want to hire them.  As it is, we recognize that users who volunteer great feedback after release are those who truly care about our product, and thus have given them elevated user accesses / previews to new features before anyone else (I might have spoiled the surprise here for some of our users, but we’ll live).  Likewise, in your organization, someone who is giving you feedback is someone who cares.  That’s not something you can get a certification in.  You either do care or you don’t.  People who give you that should be treated like gold.  They are taking part of their time to invest themselves and their thought process into your organization.   If you don’t believe me because you think I’m too good looking to be trusted with any advice for your monolith corporation, then

  1. I respect your judgement immensely and am flattered by it
  2. go read Seth Godin talk about the same thing

 

The important thing about elevating these people is that you are also able to trust their feedback more readily when the feedback is positive.   If the person is giving critical thought to what can be improved, then they’ve also given critical thought to what is already working.  This gets overlooked because many managers in the corporate world would prefer to surround themselves with people who just agree with everything they say and pretend that they are receiving “feedback”.  That’s actually called an echo chamber.  And the tough part about being in an echo chamber is that the echo drowns out the actual message that is coming from outside.


Next:
How to *hear* feedback like a startup does, and better yet, how to *action* feedback like a startup does!  Featuring how to emotionally prepare yourself for feedback.  What?!  Yup.