Stump the Chump, and the Steve Jobs Paradox?

Paradox

iTime paradox by IlookingYou

Two weeks ago, I delivered the presentation that’s been adorning the home page to a monthly meeting of the New Hampshire chapter of the project management institute.  That presentation was drawn from a series I put on the blog just a little over a year and a half ago, where I made a connection between common, sub-optimal activities that are found in project environments and Lean’s 7 wastes.

I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to stand up and speak about how Lean is not a set of cost reduction techniques nor a quality assurance program, but a philosophy of how organizations work, how people work, and of how people within organizations work.  While several in the audience were expecting a discussion of Agile software development when they heard the topic would be about Lean in Project Management, I think my focus on understanding environments and behaviors resonated with a few of the audience members.  Many asked if they could obtain a copy of the presentation, which I took to be quite the complement, also.

If the Q&A that followed, however, I was asked a question that – as I put it, “Stumped the Chump.”  One gentleman asked, in response to the portions of my presentation that focused on the Respect for People foundation of Lean and, in particular, the Shingo model, how I would characterize Steve Jobs and Apple’s success, given that Jobs was a well-known egomaniac and had a reputation for being quite stern and non-compromising.

While some members of the audience offered their take on what might have happened at Apple as others took up the cause of Respect for People and the “appropriate” management styles, in an effort to help me out as I stated that the question would require some thought, I thought up my response.  I briefly recounted my understanding of the work Steve Jobs did at Pixar, and the interpersonal dynamics he created within the hallways of Pixar (quite literally) that fostered collaboration and creativity – including several dynamics for idea sharing and generation that were drawn from – you guessed it – the Toyota Production System.

While this answer satisfied the gentleman asking the question, it has stuck with me for the past couple of weeks, as I felt the need to contemplate the question a bit further.  What I may have come to realize, is that there is something of a Paradox involved when a true visionary ascends to the position of influence within an organization.  These situations are remarkably rare, I believe, which is why they are so disruptive, revolutionary, and highly successful.  It is dependent as much upon the circumstances as the traits of the individuals involved, but it is clear to me that the person(s) who creates a whole new paradigm for conducting the work of an organization very often must embrace what I will call the “Jobsian Paradox.”

Clearly, the stories of the founders of the Toyota Production System are not that far from what we hear of Jobs doing at Apple.  The outcomes are revered by many, studied and copied by others, and delved into by an army of commentators looking for the secret to the success these visionaries bring about.  What they have in common, however, is something that is, indeed, contrary to the tenets of creativity and innovation in both project and process.  That is, that at the beginning – when people’s mindsets need to be calibrated towards a new understanding and  that understanding needs to translate into action, someone authoritative, demanding, relentless personality must be at the forefront of creating and driving the system under which change will occur.

From those personalities come systems, and from that relentless focus on driving people to the correct behaviors comes guiding them to possibilities, and from satisfactory mediocre comes the expectation of greatness.  It must begin, however, with unique individuals willing to drive others to the point of aggravation in order to be achieved, which is something of a paradox in the realm of thinking that believes people are intrinsically motivated and that all a brutish task master can do is to de-motivate them.

This is, in many ways, akin to the concept of a Level 5 Leader that Jim Collins discusses.  To foster change, unique, rare, visionary people are needed.  In order to turn their vision into reality, however, a certain drive is required that leads the people with that vision to adopt behaviors we tend to believe, at least in the short term, are counterproductive and entirely suboptimal.

To wrap it up, the Jobs-ian paradox is this:  For true visionaries with the ability to persevere, many of the management practices and behaviors that we associate with high levels of creativity  and innovation among the workforce, are ignored or simply not practiced in order to bring the organization, as a whole, to high levels of creativity and and innovation.

 

When habits go bad – walking the extra mile

Let_Your_Mind_Do_The_Walking_by_jzcj5

Let your mind do the walking by jzcj5

So, it has been nearly 2 weeks since I’ve post to the blog.  Some times, inspiration is simply hard to find.

Other times, your mother-in-law takes your wife and 2 sons off on a trip and you get a whole week to yourself.  Such has been the case around here.  As it typically goes when the family takes off on an adventure without me, the fist half of the week is grand and glorious.  Napping, eating at crazy hours, sleeping at even crazier hours and, of course, the chance to knock some long overdue projects off the list.  The second half of the week, however, gets to be downright boring and lonely.

In the midst of the boring and lonely part, I needed to pick up my car from the mechanic’s this weekend (having it serviced was one of those projects that is much more convenient when only one car is needed for the week).  The shop is a bit of a walk – about 40 minutes, but not too bad once you get going.  While I could have easily called a neighbor or a friend for help, I simply felt like getting the exercise, so I hoofed it through the neighborhood and cut through a field to get to the shop, picked up the car, and drove home.

That, of course, is not much of a story.  But it did lead to an interesting observation.

What did strike me about 2/3 of the way there, however, is the thought –  “Why in the hell didn’t I just ride my bike??”

Duh.

Seriously, I should have.  The car I was going to pick up is an SUV.  There’s plenty of room for the bike once I get there.  It would have saved about half the time, at least, and still afforded plenty of good exercise.  Especially since I made the trek early in the morning when there was little traffic to worry about, too.  Of course, I could rationalize and say the exercise was great, or the slow pace was cathartic, or whatever else we all tell ourselves when we haven’t though through all our options only to realize later that there was a better way to go about our business.

And that’s the point when it comes to trying to understand how and why we all do, what we do.  Habit tells me that to get places without my car means I have to walk.  If I rode my bike more often, the thought to get on the bike and ride down to the mechanic’s shop would have been as natural as the thought that tells me I have to put on shoes before I go out the door most mornings.  Also, I could say, if I’d developed a better habit of stopping and thinking…to weigh alternatives….before doing….then I would have realized I didn’t need to hike all the way down to the shop.  I might still have wanted to, but I would not have needed to.

So, in a way, my habits let me down.  It makes you wonder how many other things we prevent ourselves form consciously choosing because we are unconsciously eliminating possibilities.  When habits rule, the likelihood of seeing other options simply diminishes.

It might even get you left all along on the roadside.

Product Innovation vs Operational Excellence (or, Magic vs. Might?)

 

Warrior vs Sorcerer

Warrior vs Sorcerer by Pydracor on deviantart.com

There is so much written about innovation these days, it’s mind numbing.  Most of what you read, however, is all about product innovation – and there is very, very little written about process innovation.

Product innovation is something that is discussed as almost ethereal.  It is something that comes about through a little bit of magic & wizardry.  It’s romantic, intellectual, and fun.  It is the thing that enables companies like Apple & Google to push to the forefront of their industries and become the giga-bucks companies other people write books about.  It is the Holy Grail of major corporations and startups alike – both are encouraged to go on a quest for the magical, mystical powers of innovation.

Product innovation appears to be the realm of the unexplainable – that the way to go about that business is to assume a muse, or some divine spark is, ultimately, going to descend upon the workers bees and imbue them with the powers of insight and creativity.  You have to create innovation space, and adopt managerial styles and practices, that allow creativity to flourish.

Process innovation, on the other hand, is seen as something a little more grungy and foul-smelling.  It is the world of brute force and awkwardness, no matter how elegant it tries to become.  Process innovation tends to be something that people feel can be learned.  All you need to do is study Toyota, or Southwest Airlines, or General Electric and Motorola – and you will soon understand the simplicity of process innovation and be able to apply it easily, right?

Wrong.

The world is littered with great product ideas that could not be produced, as well as with companies that couldn’t sustain their operations long enough to even see the next wave of competitors, much less contend with them.    It doesn’t really matter if you have a great idea, but can’t operate the company, and especially not in the long run.

Even Google, which would seem to be a company based on Magic over Might, understands the need for a strong Operational focus in order to achieve the much-sought-after essence of Innovation.  Consider this passage from their recruitment site (emphasis added by me):

How we hire

We’re looking for our next Noogler – someone who’s good for the role, good for Google and good at lots of things.

Things move quickly around here. At Internet speed. That means we have to be nimble, both in how we work and how we hire. We look for people who are great at lots of things, love big challenges and welcome big changes. We can’t have too many specialists in just one particular area. We’re looking for people who are good for Google—and not just for right now, but for the long term.

This is the core of how we hire. Our process is pretty basic; the path to getting hired usually involves a first conversation with a recruiter, a phone interview and an onsite interview at one of our offices. But there are a few things we’ve baked in along the way that make getting hired at Google a little different.

How we interview

We’re looking for smart, team-oriented people who can get things done. When you interview at Google, you’ll likely interview with four or five Googlers. They’re looking for four things:

Leadership

We’ll want to know how you’ve flexed different muscles in different situations in order to mobilize a team. This might be by asserting a leadership role at work or with an organization, or by helping a team succeed when you weren’t officially appointed as the leader.

Role-Related Knowledge

We’re looking for people who have a variety of strengths and passions, not just isolated skill sets. We also want to make sure that you have the experience and the background that will set you up for success in your role. For engineering candidates in particular, we’ll be looking to check out your coding skills and technical areas of expertise.

How You Think

We’re less concerned about grades and transcripts and more interested in how you think. We’re likely to ask you some role-related questions that provide insight into how you solve problems. Show us how you would tackle the problem presented–don’t get hung up on nailing the “right” answer.

Googleyness

We want to get a feel for what makes you, well, you. We also want to make sure this is a place you’ll thrive, so we’ll be looking for signs around your comfort with ambiguity, your bias to action and your collaborative nature.

How we decide

There are also a few other things we do to make sure we’re always hiring the right candidate for the right role and for Google.

We collect feedback from multiple Googlers

At Google, you work on tons of projects with different groups of Googlers, across many teams and time zones. To give you a sense of what working here is really like, some of your interviewers could be potential teammates, but some interviewers will be with other teams. This helps us see how you might collaborate and fit in at Google overall.

Independent committees of Googlers help us ensure we’re hiring for the long term

An independent committee of Googlers review feedback from all of the interviewers. This committee is responsible for ensuring our hiring process is fair and that we’re holding true to our “good for Google” standards as we grow.

We believe that if you hire great people and involve them intensively in the hiring process, you’ll get more great people. Over the past couple of years, we’ve spent a lot of time making our hiring process as efficient as possible – reducing time-to-hire and increasing our communications to candidates. While involving Googlers in our process does take longer, we believe it’s worth it. Our early Googlers identified these principles more than ten years ago, and it’s what allows us to hold true to who we are as we grow.

These core principles are true across Google, but when it comes to specifics, there are some pieces of our process that look a little different across teams. Our recruiters can help you navigate through these as the time comes.

At Google, we don’t just accept difference – we celebrate it, we support it, and we thrive on it for the benefit of our employees, our products and our community. Google is proud to be an equal opportunity workplace and is an affirmative action employer.

 

So……these wizards of innovation have a clearly operational focus – collaboration, trust, responsibility, a focus on the long-term, and all of those things emphasized right from the beginning – in the hiring process – to make sure the company is populated with people who allow the organization to sustain its operational focus.

That is the strength of the organization – not it’s magical ability to develop innovative products & solutions, but it’s powerful, day-to-day, operational focus and wherewithal to sustain it.  No matter the industry, any organization without a sense of its self and dedication to the every day operational activities of the company, will fail in its quest.  Others will out-innovate and pass you by, talent will leave the organization and, at best, you will find yourself an also-ran in the market desperately clinging to a plummeting reputation as you pursue weaker and weaker opportunities until, eventually, the light goes out.

You can’t bloviate your way to an improved workplace

Arrogant

Arrogant by Akito-Aki on deviantart.com

I think we’ve all encountered the senior manager who has been assigned to “fix” a dysfunctional chunk of the organization.  Typically, they come in with a great many ideas, usually born from experiences in other situations, and then they begin to implement the tools that worked elsewhere.  There’s often a short period of enthusiasm, if not grudging acceptance, but things tend to slip backwards in time and, eventually, the organization returns to a state very similar to where it began.  The problems that the person was facing never really went away, and the attempts at treatment proved to be short-lived.

Truth is, by the time you see a problem, you are no longer seeing the problem.  You are seeing the symptom.  You take care of the immediate symptoms, treating them as best you can, hoping that they do not return.  But they do.  Because the disease is still there.  It is still there because, although you took care of the emergent situation, you didn’t look for the causal root.  You moved on to the next opportunity (or emergency), and the next, until you came back to the one that just left, because it has re-emerged.  So will all the others, because although you pushed them down, they want to thrive – and so they return.  Sooner or later, you have to pick your battles.  You have to let something burn in order to fix one of the underlying causes once and for all.

So, the question becomes, what do you let burn?  Well, for that, you have to understand the situation and know what can burn without any real damage.  Or, you have to know what you can afford to lose.  Then, you make a decision and hope you were right.  You repeat the process again, and you hope to do it better.  Through it all, there is only one thing you must do.  Anything else is failure:

You must learn.  Otherwise, you go through difficulty only to repeat it without progress.

The real problems aren’t tools or skills or a lack of motivation, or even leadership’s misjudgments.  The real problems are behavioral – and that requires an entirely different way of thinking about how to hire, fire, select team mates, manage them, and propose, develop and implement solutions.

To change the game, ignore those willing to play

war game

war game by WakaBee on deviantart.com

It’s been said that the true tragedy of life is the workplace is that we feel the need to play the game.  We take our position on the field and carry out our role, but we don’t enjoy the sport.  Mostly because we’re losing the game.  We haven’t been bounced out of the tournament, but we know we’re in the losers bracket.  Maybe by choice or circumstance, either way, we know we’re not winning.

This isn’t to say our careers or our personal lives are falling apart and have become dismal failures.  It means that, even if we’re getting ahead, we feel drained by it all.  It’s not satisfying.  It’s not something to relish – it’s something to deal with, to cope with, to overcome.

For others, however, the game is exhilarating.  For them, the game rewards them in every way they expect to be rewarded.  So, not only do they play it, they promote it.  They want it to continue, as it is, for as long as possible.  Those folks, by the way, are also in control of the status quo and convincing them to change the game requires convincing them that doing so is in their own self interest.

This means showing, beyond doubt, that the path they are on yields lesser rewards than a different one.  Not just different rewards, but rewards that they prefer more over the ones they already have.  Demonstrating a greater societal impact, in the positive direction, has no meaning to someone who simply doesn’t care about those things.

Unfortunately, this is the person we most want to change, because it represents the greatest turnaround.  It shows that even the worst-case scenario can be corrected.  What we have to do, however, is delay gratification.  When it comes to change you have to worry about the people in the boat.  Those who choose to stay in the water will either find their own raft, swim strongly, realize our boat is a pretty comfortable place or, sadly, they will drown.  While we regret that, we must also remember that they have made their choices, and the outcomes are not our problem.

Truth is, you get a lot further by working with those who believe in what you’re trying to do than if you start with the curmudgeons who require tremendous amounts of energy to turn.  Be smart.  Apply that same energy to the innovators and early adopters in order to build momentum, then worry about how to cross the chasm.

Curiosity and the desire to be first can make any idea a hit among a small population for a short period of time.  To sustain, however, you need to cross the chasm.  You need to persist.  You need to capture a larger segment of the population – those who aren’t looking for your answer, but can be convinced that it will work.