Outcome, Strategy, Projects

Adopting the hierarchy of Outcome -> Strategy -> Projects (thanks to some well-timed coaching :-)) has been a recent revelation of sorts in driving better thinking, higher quality communication, and, thus, more productive conversations.

Conversations that derail or go nowhere are almost always conversations about projects. And, these conversations are transformed when we move up the hierarchy to talking about outcomes and strategy instead.

It also turns out that working through outcomes and strategy before getting to projects helps create the kind of focus that leads to the right projects being discussed and prioritized.


Bad prioritization, Good prioritization

Bad prioritization: Make an ordered laundry list and intend to make some progress on everything. Easy. Ineffective.

Good prioritization: Use judgment to pick the top 1-3 items we’re going to focus heavily on – an outcome of sound strategy. Agonize over saying no to perfectly good ideas that just aren’t making the cut at this time. Tough. Powerful.

Applies just as well to building good products, planning how to spend time on a holiday, and building a better quality life.

Strategy and trade-offs

Good strategy involves making explicit choices that are backed by a clear articulation of the trade-offs that accompany those choices.

Articulating strategy well isn’t about listing everything required to be done to win. That part comes easy.

The challenge with crafting good strategy lies in picking the path to winning with the limited resources (and they are always limited) at hand. More often than not, that path involves investing heavily in your own strengths while doing just enough so the weaknesses don’t get in your way.

There are obvious trade-offs with that (or any) approach. But, again, if there aren’t clear trade-offs, it isn’t strategy.

Acceptable error

Our Table Tennis coach used to have a rule when we were learning how to hit a top spin forehand – hit the ball out if you must but don’t let the ball hit the net.

Hitting the net, in his mind, was a result of a weak attempt. He knew we’d make plenty of mistakes on our journey to learn how to hit the top spin right. And, he made it clear that he’d rather have us try an expansive stroke and fail – that was an acceptable error.

It turns out that the acceptable error concept is a useful tool in helping us accelerate our learning, execute better, and be kinder to ourselves. Imagine you are running an important project for the next three months. There is no way you’ll walk out of the experience knowing you’ve done a perfect job. There is no perfect job. You’ll always have some constructive feedback.

What would you rather the feedback be? For example, would you rather the feedback be about your propensity to go fast? Or, would it be about your desire to ship with the small details taken care of?

If you decide that erring on the side of speed is an acceptable error, for example, it’ll do two things.

First, it’ll bring a lot of clarity in your day-to-day execution. When push comes to shove, you’ll know to prioritize speed and you’ll walk away with lessons from consistently doing so.

Second, once the project is over, you’ll also know to expect feedback about your focus on speed. When you know to expect it, it won’t sting as much.

Acceptable error, as I’ve come to appreciate, is just another way of expressing strategy. Every strategy has its downsides. But, if chosen well, it’ll help us build on our strengths, learn, and provide clarity as we execute.

Said clarity is worth a lot.

Spending time with the why and the how

As you can tell, we’re in the midst of a series of end of year tradition posts. Today’s tradition is one that accompanies the annual review – spending time with my why and how.

This exercise involves revisiting how I define my why/purpose/mission, how that translates into my values, my culture, my approach/strategy, and the 3 most important principles I live my life by.

I have two reflections from this iteration. First, while most of it is consistent to the first version from 5 years ago, every tweak reminds me of the fact that this is a “living document” that I need to re-commit to.

The second reflection is a reminder of the power of deliberate iteration. Each iteration pushes me to articulate this better by making it flow more logically and simply. And, the more logical and simple it is, the more easier it is to live by.

v2018 is now below and on the “About” page.

My personal mission/“why”/“purpose”/what I care about: Build active relationships with framily (close friends and family), learn, and contribute positively to the world.

Thus, my simplified 3 word version articulation of what I value is – people, learning, contribution

My culture or the norms with which I make decisions flows from what I value. I aspire to show up every day by being thoughtful about how my actions impact the people around me, learning focused, and hungry to contribute. Again, in 3 words that would be – thoughtful, learning focused, hungry.

I approach my days by aiming to do my best in my 4 roles – I think of this as my strategy or my “how.” :-) These roles are sorted in priority order:
1. Leader of self
2. A caring member of my framily
3. A learning focused teammate
4. A responsible contributor to my community, i.e., the world

3 principles that I attempt to live my life by are:
1. Integrity: Integrity is making and keep commitments. This means walking what I talk and talking what I walk.

2. Love/Growth: Love is the will to extend oneself for one’s own or another’s spiritual/mental growth. This means committing to to doing small things with extraordinary love and investing in continuous growth.

3. Half-scientist, half student: I aspire to live my life as a mix of scientist and student. This means engaging with life to consciously take the time to define problems, build hypotheses, experiment, and then learn. Life, after all, is simply a series of experiments and learning opportunities. 

You and future you

For the longest time, you didn’t have too much of a say in crafting the “future you.”

Even two decades ago, those who worked “above” you in your organization had a big say in what opportunities you got to work on. Want to make that big career switch? Or, want in on that exciting new project? You just had to wait to get picked by the powers that be.

But, that’s changed.

Now, you have access to an incredible set of media tools to shape “future you.” You could demonstrate your penchant for coming up with ground breaking insights about the industry you want to work in on your blog or on LinkedIn. Facebook or Instagram can be incredible platforms to show off your artistic abilities. And, Twitter is a great place to build a following around your comedic wit or knack for pithy dialogue.

Like all good things in life, these tools are entirely what you make of them. You can use them to consume an endless stream of sticky content. Or not. If you decide to do so, these tools can be your customized digital garage to work on projects that would open up opportunities for “future you.”

Here are 3 simple questions to help craft your approach toward social media –
1. What sort of projects would you like to work on in the future?
2. What do you need to learn and ship to get access to those opportunities?
3. Which 1-2 social media tools could you use to build that body of work? If you really love the consumption, pick one other tool to consume (guilty pleasure allowance) and nix the rest.

You could choose to unconsciously engage in social media in ways that simply benefit their parent companies and hurt you.

Or, you can harness the tremendous power these bring and pick yourself to do work that matters.

5 strategy questions

Strategy can be a nebulous concept. How do you define a good strategy? Do you know one when you see one?

A wiser friend shared 5 questions from a book by former P&G CEO A G Lafley and Roger Martin – “Playing to Win.”

• What is our winning aspiration?
• Where will we play?
• How will we win?
• What capabilities must we have in place to win?
• What management systems are required to support our choices?

I love frameworks that boil complex things down to simple idea. And, if I were to simplify further, the core questions are “where will we play” and “how will we win.”

For the next time you are thinking about strategy…

Think day

The end of December is holiday season in most parts of the world. And, traditionally, there’s a lot to do during these days. There’s a good chance you’ve got some travel planned or are having a family get together at home. I’m sure there are more things you’d like to do with your time than there is time. Nevertheless, here’s one idea I’d love to throw in the mix – take a “think day.”

There are 3 broad ways to approach the think day –

1. A career focused think day. A career focused think day can be about thinking deeply about how things are going in your career. What are you doing well? What could you be doing better? Are there skills you’d like to focus on in 2017?

2. A craft/industry focused think day. When you are in the thick of things, it is hard to focus on what is going on with your craft or industry. So, how about taking a day to read and think about what is happening in your industry? Find an industry analyst or publication you trust and go through their summary of important changes in 2016 and predictions for 2017.

3. A life focused think day. Take time for an audit of how things have been going in 2016. Pick 2-3 things you’d like to focus on, see if you can roll it up into a theme and make a simple plan for daily/weekly practices to help execute these themes. The key here is simple. If you can’t remember it off the top of your head, it is probably too complicated.

Of course, there’s enough in here for three days (or more). But, starting with just one day dedicated to one of these would be a huge win. The beauty about a think day is that there isn’t a clear outcome expected. Instead, the only thing that matters is that you go through the process. The fact that most people around us are slowing down means we finally have the bandwidth to take stock.

So, here’s to giving it a shot.

PS: If you are feeling too busy for a think day, Bill Gates used to take a “think week” twice a year.

Waiting 15 minutes to try out a watch

I needed to charge my phone when I was out last weekend and went down to an Apple store in the mall and asked if I could borrow a charger. As my phone was getting charged, I thought I’d ask to try out a watch. I was politely told that I have to wait 15 minutes to try out the watch. Would I be willing to wait?

Since it would take that long for my phone to get charged, I said sure.

And, so, I waited. Every 5 minutes, I’d have one of the store folks walk up to me and say – “Thank you so much for your patience. You are #__ in queue.”

And, 15 minutes later, I was told I could finally try it. It turned out to be quite the anti-climax as the queue was for a blank watch with a screen wiped out. The wait was only to test how the watch feels on my hand. I soon realized I could have played with the watch’s user interface without waiting 15 minutes. But, as I walked out, I reflected on how ridiculous this would be in any place but an Apple store. If the screen is blanked out anyway, why not just have a few more straps lying around? While the official reason is that this is to guard against theft, I think they have other more strategic reasons.

Apple would like two things to happen with customers interested in the Apple Watch –
1. They want the trial to feel special – sort of like test driving a Lamborghini. Anticipation brings excitement -> Marketing 101.
2. The first generation of the watch is far from perfect. While I enjoyed playing with it and can see utility, it is similar to the first generation of iPhone. Potentially revolutionary, but not fun to use as yet. So, Apple would want the sort of person who wouldn’t mind waiting hours in the queue or, in this case, wouldn’t mind waiting 15 minutes to just find out how it feels. This sort of person would fall in love with the watch right away and wouldn’t mind the fact that it is buggy. This sort of person would also report the bugs and make sure the next version is much better.

Apple doesn’t want a customer like me. So, it does things that alienate me. Instead, it focuses on the real fans. Smart strategy.

The only caveat – there are very few companies that can pull this off. Don’t try this at home..

Case-by-case analysis and why strategy matters

Imagine someone came to you with a proposal regarding local industry garment workers facing increased competition from foreign competitors. $1 billion from the country or $4 from you (assuming a population of 250 million) would save their jobs. $4 per year to save a few jobs – that doesn’t sound too bad, right?

Now, imagine the steel industry comes to you with a similar request.  Then, the auto industry, then the television manufacturers and so on. All of a sudden, you are paying $250 per year to bail all these industries out. There is no way you would have agreed to this if you had known this would be the end outcome. But, consider the situation case by case and you will find that it is possible to say yes to each individual request.

That is why a case-by-case analysis without a big picture overview is dangerous. And that is exactly why strategy matters.

For example, the biggest criticism leveled at self-help books is that many of the ideas don’t work for those who read them. Of course they don’t work. If you go in with a willingness to test every new idea, many will fail. The strategy here would be to really understand yourself – your values, your drive and your approach – and then pick ideas that align with who you are.

Similarly, a smart football manager’s strategy is to pick a formation that suits her team. There is no point attempting a counter attacking strategy if her team is not suited for quick counter attacks.

If you approach a new environment without an overarching strategy, anything and everything can seem like a good idea. Your strategy is the filter that helps you make sense of the world. It is the way we think about and approach the world and it is fundamental. Here are 2 examples of a strategy for the first month at –

a) Your new job: Key priorities  i) Understand what the deliverables are and what success looks like ii) Spend time getting to know my co-workers iii) Focus hard on the core task and don’t worry about additional opportunities (revisit as necessary)
b) Your graduate school studies:  Key priorities i) Recruiting – because it is a great process to learn for life and because the results matter ii) Academics – because I am here to learn iii) Extra curriculars – because it is a great way to get to know people iv) Social – because I must prioritize time to get to know people from different social circles

So, what if we get it wrong? Good news – like life, it is iterative. If it didn’t go so well today, don’t fret. Learn. We will do better tomorrow.

(Hat tip to Avinash K Dixit’s book – The Art of Thinking Strategically)