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To Experiment Is Human. Reality is a **cker. And The Law Of Two Feet

Published: February 09, 2016

Topics: Lean Startup, Millennials, Design Thinking, Cheap Vodka, Intuit, Craft, and Call To Arms

Spend time with most product development teams these days and you are likely to hear a lot of talk about assumptions, hypotheses, experiments, validation, and “tests”. The Lean Startup glossary permeates mainstream startup coffee urn chit-chat, standups, and pitch decks. Canvasses adorn hallway walls. The A/B tests are humming! The spin-offs like LeanUX are doing great. All hail intellectual rigor and the scientific method!

Reddit flash. Reality is a **cker.

Yes … liberté, égalité, fraternité: the experimentation Force is strong. Experimentation and learning is hip and cool and the millennials dig it. It’s like college or grad school never ended. You can work at a disruptive digital widgeteer and continue to be creative, rigorous, and true to yourself. Battle-weary forty-somethings like me dig it also because it lets me take my work to a more impactful, and more challenging place. It promises fewer HIPPOs (highest paid person’s opinions), more craft, more honesty, less politics, and less bullshit.

This stuff is a dream come true for the doers, crafters, and renaissance millennials. It jumps off the shelves.

Unfortunately, the Koolaid is spiked with some wicked cheap vodka.

0 ErUuStIXI2e1gL6s Most organizations are structurally and culturally incapable of making it safe for teams to experiment and occasionally fail. As companies progress out of the do-or-die Act 1 of their trajectory, their once open attitude to experimentation shifts to a messy balancing act: making teams believe they’re empowered to solve problems (heck, it is great marketing and keeps the foosball table humming)

, while at the same time executing on the assumptions and guesses of anointed deciders.

Noise overwhelms signal, opinion overwhelms evidence, and the quest for output overwhelms the quest for validated outcomes. What a terrible vodka hangover. And that’s only the start …

Organizational fascia restricts movement and innovation, alignment deteriorates, the pressure increases, the perceived need for control increases, processes multiply, and the cycle reinforces itself (gotta love complex systems). Experimentation and learning become afterthoughts. And then the company accu-hires an innovation lab and starts doing hack days, longing for its innocent childhood, skinned knees, bruises, and bright smiles (and all).

1 ZKA3Bdow IF5MG5Oa7lc5g http://blog.nwf.org/2013/06/how-to-get-dirty-for-international-mud-day/Meanwhile, the most talented people without stock options have hit the road (otherwise known affectionately as the “law of two feet”)

. The former trailblazer wanders drunkenly into oblivion, talking about the good old days, and then joins the board of a startup.

1 LzU0DFaVoTiN aOfBMe7ug http://tokyomango.com/tokyo_mango/2011/06/photographer-documents-drunk-salarymen-passed-out-on-sidewalks.htmlCraig Larmen (of LeSS fame)

scared the crap out of me at an Agile meetup in 2015. I asked him about “bottom up” change and he flatly explained that doing change “halfway” is worse than no change at all. In short, making people see the forest through the trees while cutting the forest down is worse than no change at all. You incite the inherent tendency of the masses to embrace impactful and honest work, while not being able to dislodge the leadership hegemony. That was a buzzkill, but I couldn’t completely discount his argument.

1 FkbI54bWeECiXwHNOYl bg http://www.marinephotobank.org/resources/OIFcontestwinners2012_essays_Potenski.php

This is the let down oft reported by millennials after joining vibrant startups only to have the magic carpet pulled out from under them. And also experienced folks after realizing that some organizational-viruses never die. There has to be a better way, no?

This stuff is hard. It’s not a game of lip-service.

Read Suzanne Pelican’s piece Design thinking in the corporate DNA to understand the gumption required for deep structural change (at Intuit). Note also that the initiative had deep roots in CEO Scott Cook’s commitment to “be considered one of the most design-driven companies in the world” by 2020. Pelican’s mention of Eric Reiss isn’t a namecheck. Intuit doesn’t phone in its commitment to a more intellectually honest and rigorous approach. They live and breath it (for now). Pelican writes:

A common trap for us is to take something in its infancy and try to scale it big. Build it. Launch it. Move on. Well, it doesn’t work like that. Remember how long it took before you mastered design thinking? This isn’t something that you have people try once and then expect them to get it. It takes about six to 10 experiential, immersive, contextually relevant experiences before someone finally “gets” it and can make it their own. Eight years later, we’re still building this skill into our employees, one experience at a time.Contrast that with the rigor most companies put into their experiments, canvasses, validation, and evidence-based approaches. When they hit the inevitable letdown, they blame the tools and methods. Mistake!

Evidence-based approaches aren’t the problem. Lean Startup combines a number of tested methodologies. Design thinking is a solid and very time-tested problem solving approach. BML, the double-diamond, PDCA … while subtly different, would be grouped by visiting aliens all under the same category, and categorize them as “more functional”. They are innately human.

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We’re inundated with ways — under “ideal” circumstances — to build great products people love. My Twitter feed swims in it. The summary is basically … “I WISH I could spend my day working like this!” These methods are humane, rigorous, curious, and failure safe.

And then you have the whole host of “cultural change” articles that explain how to hack organizations to make them safer for things that work to work. We all seemingly want the same thing, while the “real world” folks are drawing gantt charts, setting KPIs, and selling stuff people don’t use.

What’s the point? I want to encourage crafters (buzzy, yes), hackers, “makers” (buzzy, yes), designers, creatives, builders, and engineers to approach their work with passion, rigor, and curiosity. To seek out places where you are safe, and while those places are safe to build stuff that both excites you and benefits people. Use the law of two feet to live passionately and move where you find value. Promote a diversity-friendly, learning-safe, and failure-safe mindset, and work to create those environments for other people. Growth does not always imply sacrifice … if you stick stubbornly to your values anything is possible. Basically … don’t give up!

  • Show empathy NOT indifference
  • Ask why and who NOT how and what
  • Serve teams NOT agendas
  • Be guided by principles NOT plans
  • Be a team-member NOT a team-driver
  • Focus on challenges and needs NOT titles
  • Treat teammates like creative makers NOT resources
  • Provide context and data NOT solutions and platitudes
  • Have suggestions and opinions NOT demands and fiats
  • Be curious and open NOT dismissive and stubborn
  • Harness diversity NOT conformity
  • Embrace simplicity NOT oversimplification
  • Deliver outcomes and impact NOT features and output
  • Build less NOT more
  • Be transparent NOT opaque or manipulative
  • Be accessible NOT elusive or overbearing