Learning to ask the right questions

On April the 211st I had the privilege of speaking to graduate students in the Walter G. Booth School of Engineering Practice at McMaster University.

The venue was the impressive McMaster Engineering Technology building at McMaster University and my host was Dr. David Potter, a Xerox alumni, which seems fitting given Weever Apps’ recent Xerox partnership announcement.

I always enjoy learning about new student startups and sharing with them my experiences as a naive entrepreneur who made quite a few assumptions in my business plan – hopefully they can avoid the mistakes I’ve made and make better ones!

All dizzying photo credit due to the MMM Group.

Hamilton’s Spectrum and LiON’s Lair business competitions

I have a new guest post up with Hamilton’s Innovation Factory: “Innovation City: Why LiON’s Lair Matters”. My company, Weever Apps, won the inaugural LiON’s Lair competition in 2011. Mentioned here.

Tt was a privilege to see one of the new ventures I’m mentoring, Start the Cycle, pitch in the Spectrum Student Startup competition earlier this month. Advising new teams like Thrive Games and Take5 has been incredibly rewarding and I plan to continue those activities through the year.

Making products worth making

In a badly designed book, the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field… In a well-made book… the letters are alive. They dance in their seats. Sometimes they rise and dance in the margins and aisles. (Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Style)

I’ve been enjoying a slow crawl through Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. The book has both the poet’s charming ability to turn a phrase and an engaging continuous theme of what Brian Zmijewski terms progressive design.  In Elements, Bringhurst states the goal of typographic design is to represent written content accessibly and accurately1.  The principal tactic to achieve this goal is by designing from the “content out”:

Read the text before designing it… Discover the outer logic of the typography in the inner logic of the text.

In other words, Bringhurst argues that to make something well, you must first understand its core meaning, purpose and character (aka. “the text”). Only after this first step is taken should considerations like fonts, margins, and layout, come into consideration.

This is sage advice for any typographer; I think it applies to business too. Thousands of people make millions of new products every year. Staff are hired, plans drafted, monies spent and then most of these products fail.

So how does a company avoid making products that are not worth making at all? Budget excuses aside, a common element of unsuccessful products (and startups) is that they fail to deliver significant value to customers.  This is a good place to start! To illustrate the point of value, let me replace a few of Bringhurst’s wise words with my own:

Understand the customer before designing a solution… Discover the outer logic of the product in the inner logic of the customer.

“Reading the text” when creating a product, then, is the process by which we can better understand the inner logic of the customer,2 that is, to anticipate their wants and needs. Here are a few questions I’ve found useful:

  • What are some important motivations for the person(s) involved?
  • What job is the product being hired to do by each person involved?
  • What actions allow us to validate that the product/idea is significant3 in addressing those motivations with a minimum of effort?

In my experience if an entrepreneur addresses each of these questions, the processes of drafting a new product, a pitch, a startup company strategy, or a marketing campaign becomes much less challenging.

Ultimately we make products for other people. When we work directly, honestly and sympathetically to help others achieve their motivations, we’re more likely to create a product that, like a well-designed book, feels meaningful and alive.  These are the products that are worth making.  As Jason Fried of 37 Signals has put it:

“Here’s what our product can do” and “Here’s what you can do with our product” sound similar, but they are completely different approaches.

1. Bringhurst’s Elements tells us that the purpose of typography is “to honour and elucidate the character of the text”.

2. By “customer” I mean anyone who decides on an investment of time, effort or money.

3. A good way to measure the significance (value) of a product to a customer is by determining how much they will pay (to make it, to buy it, to rent it, to keep it, etc.)

The photo is of Jitterbug dancers in NYC by Alan Fisher in 1938. The dance was controversial in multiple contexts. Events featuring the Jitterbug filled seats and dance floors (and sometimes the aisles too). The coloration is anachronistic and entirely my fault.

Strategy, tactics and diversity

I’ve started off 2015 thinking about the interplay of strategy, tactics and diversity in new business efforts. This quotation from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been stuck in my head:

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Breaking this passage down, I’ll define tactics here as “doing things right” (management) and strategy as “doing the right things” (leadership).

In my experience new companies prioritize questions of strategy (what will we do?) and not tactical execution (how will we do it well?).  I think the focus on strategy over execution is a mistake and I agree with Mike Roach’s sentiment:

Strategy without execution is hallucination.

In my experience:

  • Planning to do things is easy
  • Doing things well is difficult
  • Doing new things well is more difficult
  • Groups of people doing new things well is even more difficult
  • New groups of people doing new things well is almost impossible

So the question remains: How does a new team (a startup) doing something new (an innovation) learn to execute well?  Here are a few informal principles I’ve identified:

1. Plan to learn from failure

We all make mistakes when trying something new, we should keep in mind that failure can be an invaluable instructor.  The privilege to make mistakes, learn and improve should inform (not detract from) timelines, product schedules and project leadership.

This means giving people the opportunity to fail at achieving a goal and allowing them to try again (but differently!). I’ve come to prefer this approach of “fail, learn and re-try” over one of the popular alternatives: hire ambitious recent MBA from established company internship and/or well-branded school with a specialization in X.

2. Encourage critical team reviews

I’ve witnessed (and delivered) some truly terrible investment pitches, product launches and marketing efforts.  Usually the story goes something like this:

  1. A person or team ignores or does not engage with diverse critical feedback
  2. Wider examination reveals an important flaw and a pitch / product / company fails

When we ignore critical examination by others it becomes more likely that what we don’t know, in fact, will hurt us.  Giving priority to early, constructive and critical reviews from different people with different skills and viewpoints helps us to:

  • Identify risks early (when we are best able to change things)
  • Reduce overconfidence and over-planning
  • Better prepare to deal with dissenting viewpoints
  • Distinguish strategic errors from tactical problems when they do occur (“was our product wrong for the market or did we market it wrong?”)

We don’t know what we don’t know but we can ask. So how do we ensure that we’re asking the right people?  This brings me to the third principle:

3.  Encourage significant diversity

A significant number of business studies have concluded that groups that look more alike, act more alike, and think more alike are less likely to succeed in innovative contexts.  Why?  In the words of Scientific American editor Fred Guterl (summarizing the research findings of Katherine W. Phillips, Vice Dean of Columbia Business School):

When we have to work with people who are not like ourselves, we tend to prepare more thoroughly and work harder to marshal our arguments, and we do better work as a result.

Significant diversity prevents the assumption that team members, investors or customers will perceive things the same way you do.  It is important to remember:

  • When we make assumptions, we guess
  • When we examine our ideas, products, and methods, we still guess but we make better, more educated guesses

In this way, diversity* better prepares “new people doing new things” for the unorthodox, always-changing and impermanent world, which, in our corner, is the business market.

Final thoughts

So “how does a team without much experience in a given area learn to execute well?” My short answer:

  • By planning to learn from failure
  • By encouraging critical team reviews
  • By encouraging significant diversity

* I define diversity broadly here as a condition in which any person will not assume that another person shares their perspective.  

The painting in the header of this post is by the artist Au Ho-Nien. His work acknowledges arts from many periods of historic China including the ink wash styles of the Song Dynasty. Sun Tzu has been required reading for military strategists since at least the Song, so a match with the topic of this article felt appropriate. The subject of the painting reminds me a popular idiom about birds which isn’t entirely true.

Three UX Lessons: What I learned by making mistakes

While there may be some technical accuracy to the claim that “all the startup advice you read is wrong” my personal experience is that the mistakes I’ve made are pretty common in startup land.

I created this slide deck for Startup Drinks Hamilton. The event encourages speakers with “validated experience” (a history of making mistakes and learning from them) and that’s why I’d encourage anyone considering a new venture to attend.