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Christian Nimsky's Weblog

Implementing a New Strategy Is Not a Straight Line Proposition

Christian Nimsky

In this post I continue to explore why implementing new strategies is hard, but doesn’t have to be. Today I want to offer an alternative example of “resistance to change,” how it manifests and what we can do about it.

When people talk about resistance to change, it’s easy to take this to mean one or more individuals actively or passively resisting a change.  While this does happen I believe that some significant-but-hard-to-measure costs come from two common forces in an organization that can discourage learning and really slow things down. Both originate with unrealistic expectations:

  • Architects of the change (management and “change agents”) often feel responsibility for implementing the change, and come up with plans and messaging to do so.
  • Stakeholders of the change (customers, investors, the general employee population by extension external media) tend to expect a simple plan that moves the organization from A to B while providing a clear benefit to them and an understandable story.

These perspectives are natural, but both tend to breed an intolerance for unexpected developments and information that is disruptive to the current narrative. As people act on these perspectives (leaders trying to stick to the plan, stakeholders expecting the plan to be executed without deviation) the organization tends to resist learning, and therefore change.

While known problems with known solutions can be solved with a straightforward prescription, if you are pursuing a new strategy you may know what the problem is, but not necessarily the exact form of the solution nor how to best operationalize it. In these situations you need adaptability more than you need simplicity and flawless execution against plan.

So how can we start to foster adaptability? It doesn’t always require hiring new “adaptable” people…just different mindsets and behaviors.

  • Architects of the change should point to a direction set in the new strategy, but not try to stipulate how to get there.  They should create appropriate forums for experimentation, discussion and set the right expectations (via messaging, budgeting, etc.) while providing some clear goals and guidelines.
  • Stakeholders of the change should not expect a “magic pill” solution and be prepared to lead front-lines experiments that can turn a new strategy into an operable reality. This means engaging in a two-way conversation, defining solutions, trying things out even if they can fail, measuring results and owning both the results as well as the communication back to the larger organization.  When a viable path forward emerges, this also means working hard to make it successful and serving as evangelists.

Sometimes a non-linear, iterative method gets you to the right destination faster and cheaper than a linear method. It depends on how you apply it and the culture you build. I’ve seen this approach work well a few times.  Have you tried it in your organization? If so, how did it pan out?

Next up: Some hats that people wear during a major transformation, and what they may experience along the way.

Creating a new strategy is hard. Implementing it, even harder. Why?

Christian Nimsky

Trying something new is hard, whether you are an individual, a team or a large organization.  In my experience organizations can struggle to find the best path forward even if they “know” what they want to do. And often, doing that new “thing” well is critical to their continued relevance and survival. So, if the organization has the necessary motivation, why is doing something new hard?

There has been a lot of good research on “strategic misses,” either in the form of failing to act effectively to address market shifts (Kodak - even though they invented the digital camera! - as analyzed in many places but with Chunka Mui’s piece in Forbes a great place to start) or by letting a bias toward action guided through the lens of prior success scatter precious momentum (Donald Sull’s excellent piece in HBR from 1999 is still relevant).

Even if your new strategy is sound and unclouded by historical success or other bias, acting on the new strategy is still hard.  Why?

I have a hypothesis: I believe the reason why implementing new strategies is hard because organizations tend to evolve structures, rhythms, methods and cultures over time to optimally support a specific strategy, much as animals evolve to thrive in a specific environment.  And the more optimized they have become, the harder it is to change course. 

Big shifts generate turbulence in the organization.  A lot of people consider the confusion and turbulence surrounding a major shift in strategy to be normal. Maybe, but is it inevitable? There are some risks to accepting turbulence as a “new normal”: If the organization doesn’t change course smoothly, it can trip itself up and fail at both the old strategy and the new one.

I want to see if there’s a better way. This post - and the ones that will follow it - are my attempt to start a conversation about what you have experienced and what works (or not) when navigating big shifts in strategy.

So let’s start by talking not about strategy itself, but turbulence.  How do you know you are about to experience turbulence?

Often when people sense a gap between where things are and what the new strategy would require they try to start talking about it. If they perceive the gap to be a big one, what usually comes out in the early stages are semi-doubtful questions or statements like:

  • “We’re not set up to do that…"  (gaps in structure, systems, etc.)
  • “Can our people really change their ways?…" (skillset, ways of thinking and/or culture)
  • “I don’t know if we’re that kind of company…" (customer engagement pathways, brand)
  • “That new person they hired to lead initiative X has a real mountain to climb..." (possible lack of buy-in/support)

And then there’s the big question nobody likes to talk about in public: “If we’re moving to this new strategy, do our leaders have what it takes to get us there safely?” 

These signals are important because in transitions people tend to act differently.  They may make decisions a little more hesitantly, calling lots of meetings.  They might not implement new approaches or products swiftly. At the other extreme, some might make rash decisions and leap without looking. 

I’ve even seen some individuals “short” the new strategy like a stock, taking actions that enable them to profit from any setback in the new strategy.

Unmanaged, these behaviors can threaten the success of the organization regardless of the strategy itself.  

Open mic time: Do you find this topic relevant?  If so, what have you seen, and do you think there is a better way?  What would you advise a colleague leading a major new effort in their company to watch out for?

In future posts if there is interest, I’m planning on diving a little deeper into the behaviors, the different roles people can assume and what organizations contemplating a big change can do about it.

Image above courtesy of Gerard Van Der Leun via Flickr

Navigating Corporate Transformations As A Tenured Leader

Christian Nimsky

Over the last several years I've found myself in situations where I've come into an existing team with some sort of "transformational" mandate.  The mandate could be a full-on turn-the-business-around kind of thing or just a high growth scenario that requires the organization to adapt to seize new opportunities.  This post shares a few observations on challenges that existing or “tenured" leaders face in such situations, the definition of an “tenured leader" being one who is not new to the organization, even though they may have recently been promoted into a leadership role.

As a new exec the challenge with assessing leaders in a transformational situation is that most leaders are pretty good at mirroring what you are looking for and in the early months there isn't always the opportunity for a "true test" of their actions and ability.  Like many who inherit a team in a turnaround or other kind of "transformation" scenario, my initial impulse is rarely to scrap the entire team and start over so I typically take some time to work with people and assess what kind of changes would benefit the team the most.  Below are some changes I have repeatedly seen in a transformation scenario.

Exits: Over the course of the first few months it is relatively straightforward to identify and address anyone who is clearly not going to fit.  While not an easy task, it is relatively straightforward and induces a change dynamic that is sort of a known quantity in many organizations.

A New “Inner Circle”: Often a new exec identifies the need for one or more chief lieutenants that are well connected, have characteristics desirable in the new culture and can get things done across the organization.  This is especially true if the organization has a lot of upward/horizontal management obligations that take up the new executive’s time.  In the early days it is a relatively clear cut process for the new executive to make the case for their promotion, elevating those individuals into new levels of responsibility and influence.

New Faces: Hiring in new talent is also relatively straightforward.  Where gaps are exist (or have been created by necessary exits), hiring in really strong people is a way to set a new bar.  We've done that at CR to great effect.  As that bar gets raised, some of the existing leaders - including those recently promoted - experience changes that give them opportunities for growth at the same time.

During all of these changes tenured leaders can face one or more challenges:

  • They may experience survivor syndrome as other team members leave.
  • They are put into uncomfortable roles, especially as they are promoted.
  • They may be asked to assume a higher level responsibility than peers.
  • They are often given larger scopes of responsibility.
  • The formal and informal organizational landscape shifts as new people are brought in around them.
  • Oh yeah - they have a new boss too!

This can be an exciting time for tenured leaders. On the plus side they have the advantage of institutional knowledge and a network in the organization.  They also have new allies in the form of new teammates and can start to implement things they may not have had the opportunity to under prior management.  The new teammates also present a challenge in that they may reshape the power structure and they bring different knowledge and perspectives that alter the ongoing narrative.

So what should you do if you find yourself in this situation?

Realize you have a choice on how to approach things.  Organizational transformations represent both risk and opportunity.  Some people find growth in the turbulence and others fixate on managing personal risk and often end up stagnating.  The danger in fixating on risk is for most people is they end up spending too many calories justifying and defending their portfolio of responsibility, causing them to appear “non-strategic” or “resistant” or both.  If you truly don’t like the direction the new executive is taking things, voice that concern and be prepared to leave if you feel like you can’t sign up for the new approach.

Ask for help.  At CR we have some emerging leaders who are in the middle of many of these changes and are great at asking for help.  I find that people who ask for help tend to have more ongoing success than those who hunker down and try to just grind through the change while quietly holding on to the perspectives and approaches that have served them well historically (but perhaps not in the future).  This should include asking some of your new peers for help.

Take risks and let stuff break occasionally.  I've seen many leaders who - in the face of exits around the team and an influx of new (but uninitiated) peers - throw themselves into fixing or covering for all the little gaps and dysfunctions in the organization.  While this can temporarily “save the day" it can also create risk by downplaying areas that need improvement and by pushing you - the perfectly capable and newly anointed leader - into a mode where you are mired in the operational side of things.  Nothing is wrong with operational competence, but if it comes at the expense of your ability to contribute strategically you could find it limiting your growth in a transformational scenario.

Get outside of the building.  While important as a general rule of thumb, for tenured leaders getting outside the building is even more critical because their new teammates coming in have already been outside the building, and you don't want to be contributing solely from an "institutional knowledge" standpoint.  It is also wise to network in a transformational scenario because you might need those connections at some point.  First, there is always the possibility that the transformation doesn’t work and the company finds itself in a financially desperate situation where you need to look for a new gig.  If the transformation does work, in the future you may be asked to help recruit staff, to bring new ideas into the building or to even find new partnership opportunities.  

Anchoring Your Product and Marketing Core Propositions with Mad Libs

Christian Nimsky

I have found that when a new product or service is being conceived, people on the team often explore different aspects of the offering, creating variants or describing the solution and its results in ways that vary from short-term tactical to long-term market-changing sets of fundamental principles.  This behavior is natural and shows you that your team is really investing themselves in the product.  It shows they are internalizing it and they are engaged.

There is a risk of taking this too far, and you’ve probably seen it in action: The exploration can quickly turn into an echo chamber, where ideas are reflected back and forth among the team and executives until the group polarizes around a common idea using language that only makes sense to the group.  Your risk is taking the echo-chamber product / message combo outside and receiving…a TOTALLY BLANK STARE from your customers and the industry, because your team has iterated itself into a corner that nobody can understand.

The key to avoiding the blank stare is to transition the team from “talk” to “try” before you get embroiled in group-think.  Whether your team uses a Product Discovery* process to learn about your customers and the right solution (which I advocate - see note below) or develops and markets products using some other method, you need to sense when the echo chamber is starting up and stop the discussion there.

One way to crystallize things is to force the team to discuss and complete a single “Mad Libs” style Anchor Statement that clarifies what the product is solving, for whom and to what result.  People often don’t have a clear thought process on this, and may struggle to articulate it.  Here’s an example of what I’ve put on whiteboards during team discussions:

productanchorstatement.png

You’d be suprised how much this simple exercise can make people think, challenge each other and clarify their understanding of the core proposition they are thinking of taking to market.  From there the Product Discovery process (or whatever method you use) has enough to get started in a practical way.

If you are running a team that is struggling to get to the core of things - or worse - is spinning around trying to get to a core strategy by summarizing all the conversations to include every point of view, you should give this a try.  Constraining the story often forces clarity.

Go create!

* I’ve grown to be a real fan of a clearly delinated Product Discovery process and believe that many problems in both product development and marketing stem from a lack of clarity on what the customer actually needs and what is being offered.  Many people have written about this and Marty Cagan does a particularly good job of encapsulating the key ingredients of good product strategy, product discovery and other aspects of a product-led culture. Because this has already been written about extensively, I will not reprise it here but will refer to it in this post.

Thanks, Steve.

Christian Nimsky

steve1955-2011.jpg

Yesterday Steve Jobs passed away and there have been a flurry of reactions from people all over the world.  Many of those reactions came from people who purchased the products that Steve and his team designed but have never created a product themselves. Some reactions also came from colleagues, some from real leaders who know what they’re talking about and some who are just leadership pundits not wanting to miss out on this week’s press cycle. Some of those reactions have come from people who create products - products that touch millions of people at a time.

This post is written from the standpoint someone in the latter group, and I have been a member of that group for the last twelve years.  Steve’s approach and his story has been tremendously influential to product people the world over and to me as an individual.  Through the world’s reaction to his death I was struck by how effective Steve has been at creating a daring vision and then projecting that vision in a way that people saw how to conform reality to their dreams.  This applies equally to internal employees, stockholders, the press and pundit crowd or consumers who are buying the products and integrating them into their lives.  People have gotten used to joining in with Steve’s vision, and now that Steve is gone they miss him and are wondering who will lead them next.

While showing us how to make our dreams a reality, Steve has also had a strong hand in shifting global tastes to emphasize design. Instead of going for lower cost, bigger marketing spend, fancy distribution strategies or other methods, Steve showed how loyalty and owner evangelicism can shift the framework through which we ascribe value to things at a fundamental and economically disruptive level. 

Steve has touched many of us personally and I believe that Steve’s full impact will not be known for some time. In a world where development costs and barriers to entry have lowered to the point where anyone can make and distribute a piece of crap to efficiently address a “market” - and many do - Steve taught us to care about elevating our existence in an almost Renaissance-like fashion.

Thank you Steve, for showing us that there is a way to grasp greatness and that “grokking” the consumer and the solution can change entire economic systems for the better.  But now it is our responsibility to stop waiting to be led…instead we must take the torch that you lit and carried for two decades and to learn to carry it on our own.

On Kids and Kindles

Christian Nimsky

kindle3.jpg

Things have been relatively slow in “kid tech” around the Nimsky household the past two years and that’s been fine by us.  This past holiday season we started transitioning a bit away from kiddie toys and were trying to feed our kids’ ever-increasing appetite for books.  We tried Kindles.

I really like the Kindles, especially the newer version.  It’s lightweight, about the right size for a kid and with one of those silicone jacket accessories pretty resistant to slipping (and therefore, dropping).  

The kids like them too, and they came in very handy on our recent ski trip.  Instead of asking for yet more movie or video game time, they ask for another book.

The Kindle has no real “parent” controls on it, and some software development in this area by the Amazon team would be welcome.  We’ve managed to teach our kids that “we choose and buy the books together” but if there were some kind of robust rating system (or, better, you could integrate Commonsense Media’s database with some filtering rules) then I would be more comfortable with the kids exploring subject to some kind of allowance.

This Ain't Your Daddy's Window Sticker

Christian Nimsky

Or, how passion and skunkworks can unlock innovation

 

 

I don’t write about work much but I felt this was worth sharing.  At Kelley Blue Book we have a great product team and big plans.  This story however is about innovation led by designers and engineers.

Like most decent-sized websites we have an ambitious roadmap and lots to do just to keep our business operating and growing each day.  The upshot is we don’t always get as much time to work on disruptive ideas as we’d like.

This year we’ve opened up the gates for Skunkworks projects, and three have already come to fruition.  I will show you one here, and talk about how we manage it.

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Droid + Verizon + Google Voice = Great Potential, But Think Before Porting

Christian Nimsky

I was one of the people that got really spun up about the Droid.  Why? partly I wasn’t going the AT&T route for an iPhone (every iPhone user I talk to sounds terrible and/or the call drops) but mostly it was because Verizon finally had a strong Android handset and Android interfaces closely with Google Voice. 

I like Google Voice.  A lot.  I am one of those people eagerly waiting for some of the FCC smoke to clear so I can port my number into Google Voice.  That’s where the Verizon + Google Voice + Moto Droid landscape is close to great, but not quite there.  And the shortcoming in my opinion is around how Verizon and Google have coordinated the launch of the Droid but have omitted Google Voice from their story to the 100,000 people who have bought this phone, some of whom are interested in using Google Voice with Android on Verizon.

If you are thinking of porting your number to Verizon with an idea that you’d port it later to Google Voice, you might want to wait.  My thoughts as to why after the jump…

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Inspiring High Altitude Photography Under $150

Christian Nimsky

Long Island from 93,000 feetI love it when someone does a thing both audacious and deceptively practical.  Two students at MIT successfully launched a digital camera to 93,000 feet using a weather balloon and recovered it. Their total project costs were in the $150 range, well within the means of the average human.

That’s high enough to see the black sky of near-space.  The recovery was done via a Boost Mobile phone with GPS.  The image above is from the project’s website at space.1337arts.com.  Go check it out and make a donation.  They deserve it.

You WILL be Latino!!! You WILL!!!

Christian Nimsky

spanishfacebook.jpg

My wife’s last name is Lago, and she’s of Italian descent.  This week Facebook started mysteriously displaying all non-user-generated website copy in Spanish.  She never asked for it, and has also clicked a “not interested” link they’ve displayed when prompting her if she wants to continue her FB experience in espanol.

On her computer I just typed in “Facebook.com” to check something and saw the login screen above.  FB is evidently not deterred by her user preferences.

How Not To Go Out Of Business

Christian Nimsky

Today I got the strangest email from Clear / Verified Identity Pass - the company that provides a registered traveller service in some of the major U.S. airports. The email told me that they were unable to negotiate an agreement with its senior creditor to continue operations. I loved the $120-$130 a year service - you used a special identity card and sailed through security, but this all-at-once disappearing act strikes me as ill planned.

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Verizon MiFi 2200: Coolest Thing Since TiVo

Christian Nimsky

I was never really motivated to get one of those 3G laptop modem cards, partly because you have to fit it to a single computer.  This means one person at a time, and to boot some of the cards have format restrictions like Express Card, PCMCIA, etc. And then you have this weird appendage sticking out of the side of your computer, just waiting to get snapped off.

When I saw the MiFi 2200 however I was immediately intrigued.  We have a family road trip coming this summer and I’ve been thinking about how to stay connected without hunting for spotty Wi-Fi everywhere we go.  So I bought it and am blown away…

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Kid Tech: iPod Touch vs. Nintendo DS

Christian Nimsky

Even though our children’s friends have received electronic games for presents, my wife and I have generally resisted this.   We bought a Nintendo Wii to emphasize “family” gaming in a controlled setting but there is something about games like the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP that have a strong appeal to kids.

So in response to the repeated please we have told our kids they need to save their money.  And one day they called our bluff - they had enough money to buy their own.  One bought a Nintendo DS and one bought an iPod Touch.  After the jump I’ve included my observations about each as they would apply to a young (pre-teen) child’s use.

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Zion National Park in Winter

Christian Nimsky

On the heels of a skiing trip to Utah we went into Zion National Park this past New Years’ Eve.  We had time for just a couple short hikes with the kids: Weeping Rock and Riverside Walk.  If you could deal with slick and frozen trails that day you’d find that the crowds were few and the scenery was beautiful because of the snow cover.  Check it out below:

Ashes, Ashes...

Christian Nimsky

Ashes, Ashes…

This latest batch of wildfires suprised me with the speed that they threw smoke and ash into the air. We’re nowhere near the fires but the ground in our neighborhood is covered with it and we continue to have “snowflakes” falling from the sky.

The sun is reddish beige in the middle of the day.

Poor Man's T-1

Christian Nimsky

One of the things that you get with a T-1 line is a guaranteed bandwidth and (usually) sub-4 hour recovery from any outages in connectivity to the internet. As many households become more dependent on the internet (particularly with VOIP) downtime can be almost as crippling as it would be to a business, however T-1s usually carry with them a cost between $300 and $700 per month for such security. Until now. The advent of new, inexpensive Dual-WAN (also called multi-homing) routers, there is another way consumers can achieve redundancy by using two inexpensive ISP connections.

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Update: Parrot vs. BlueAnt Supertooth III

Christian Nimsky

Just a quick update on our dual trial of the Parrot MINIKIT and BlueAnt Supertooth III: The BlueAnt device is superior in operation and battery life.  After the Parrot “checked out” on my wife we now own TWO BlueAnt ST3’s.  We have a third car where the Parrot can live, but for our daily drivers it’s BlueAnt.