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#FailingFwd: 5 lessons from start-up experiences

Today, Wednesday October 14th, the Failing Forward conference took place in Brussels: “seasoned entrepreneurs give an honest testimonial about the hardships they encountered on their way to success and the lessons learned that got them through.”

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Such initiatives make you reflect on your own failures and lessons learned. The last 15 years, I’ve had the ‘opportunity’ to learn from a few hardships:

  1. Temptation island-focus

The first thing you learn on any MBA, business course or entrepreneurial bootcamp. It seems to be the first thing you forget. I worked in a student start-up best described as an internships job engine. Instead of focusing on building the best possible database of possible interns and employers we got tempted to develop all kinds of web content (for ex. applying for a job), organize events and launch a Belgian version of a Dutch magazine.

–> Next time I will work with partners for the right existing content and associate with the right existing events.

  1. A team of players

Investors attach utmost importance to the team behind the ideas. Sometimes, as a team member driven by idea enthusiasm, you forget to do that. I even quit my job in order to start up promising projects with passionate people. But it turned out we wanted other things from the projects, or changed our minds.

–> Next time I will challenge (others AND myself) early in the process on what all team members REALLY want in the end.

  1. Wait, not perfect yet!

There are various reasons to keep working and re-working: you don’t agree on the concept (or the metaphor!), you doubt, you fear rejection, you like the comfort of the drawing board. For a certain start-up, I have got 36 versions of presentations with value propositions. Nothing wrong with a number of versions, but …

–> … next time I will leave the drawing board soon(er) and develop proposals for actual clients. This limits sales time and enhances effectiveness. And last but not least: it motivates you to move ahead.

  1. Where is that RFP to change the world?

There is a difference between (a) what you want to do for a client and (b) what the client is willing to let you work on. In a start-up, we wanted to work on organizational ecosystem, but we were ‘casted’ (read: had the credibility) to work on team dynamics.

–> Next time I will make an honest list of the assignments that (potential) clients trust us to work on, and start writing our service offering from there.

  1. Cost proposition

With a team of 5 colleagues, we developed a new service. In our attempts ‘not to overestimate’ we made conservative pricing estimates based on costs plus a low margin. The service got implemented, but it turned out that in the first phase, we had underestimated both the willingness to pay and the sales effort it would take to make a modest profit.

–> Next time I would experiment with different pricing models sooner in order to make a more convincing (and even more realistic) pitch, based on the value for the potential client.

My Failing Forward fil rouge: check your ideas faster with potential clients. Clients and prospects are a kind of external beacon that guides your way – as a team or as an entrepreneur. And also: for every failure, there is a success story. I’d love to hear your stories.

6 phrases you don’t hear in self-steering teams

The Belgian Yellow Tigers reached the quarterfinals in the 2015 European Volleybal championships. This reminds me of a lecture on team performance by their coach (and academic researcher) Gert Vande Broek. He stated autonomy as an important motivator, talked about autonomous teams and illustrated this with a picture of a time-out managed by the team (notice the coach just outside the circle).

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This started an animated discussion whether teams are ready or not to be self-steering. “You need to earn autonomy, work together in order to achieve autonomy,” Vande Broek added an important nuance (you’ll find more pics with the coach leading the time-out).

When is a team self-steering? How can you recognize it in interactions between team members? 

Here are 6 phrases you won’t hear in a self-steering team:

1. “I wasn’t aware I needed to do that.” – because in self-steering teams there are clear roles and TO DO’s, often supported by visual mgt, regular exchanges. There is a sense of initiative so that tasks get done (even the ‘boring’ ones).

2. “I didn’t know that / receive that information.” There is a continuous sharing of knowledge and info (push), a reflex “this can be interesting for you / your job” and a ‘dare to ask’ mentality (pull).

3. “… all this time, we were doing it wrong / working on the wrong things.” Self-steering teams work goal oriented and focused but there is time for time-outs, open feedback form the very beginning of an assignment.

4. “I can’t take it anymore.” These teams work hard and take pride in doing so. However, there are fun moments to take the pressure off, mostly after a peak moment and before someone becomes too stressed or ill. 

5. “I had to do all of this on my own.” Members of self-steering team ‘detect’ colleagues in need, even without using words.

6. “Don’t go there, that’s too delicate.” There are no professional ‘non-dis’ and team members know how to talk about issues in a constructive way.

What does YOUR self-steering teams radar tell you? I’m curious!

Fail, move on, win: what organizations can learn from tennis pros

“Create a culture in which failure is tolerated. Create a safe space. Allow room for mistakes. Fail Fast. Learn from mistakes.” These are often mentioned as necessary conditions for innovation. However, as failure creates emotions like anger and frustration, hitting a wall and moving on is not obvious.

So, how do we deal with failures and get your innovation back on track? How do you reset after a mistake, keep your mind fresh and your motivation high?

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Innovation can learn from tennis. Another mental, often solitary discipline with many unpredictables or “sudden swings of momentum,” as performance psychologist James Loehr calls them. Loehr and his team analyzed thousands of hours of tennis matches. Loehr: “What we saw was that points were often won and lost not during the points themselves, but between the action. We set about putting a protocol in place for players to control their emotional state between the points and get their emotional chemistry right to optimize peak performance.” This protocol is described in The Tennis Mind, a special report for TRUE Magazine.

Players are trained to apply these 4 steps after every mistake. And to repeat them until they become a habit:

  1. Respond with a positive physical gesture: f.e. turn your back on a mistake (don’t keep staring a the line you missed by an inch), don’t frown (negative face expressions influence your mental state), walk with confidence.
  2. Relax: breathe, stare into your snares or onto the court (don’t take in to much information, avoid to think to much).
  3. Prepare: back to “NOW”, what do you want to do, how do you want to win? What’s the plan?
  4. Initiate game modus: every player has a ritual like visualizing the next point, jumping up and down, bouncing the ball in a particular way.

Now, let’s suppose your team has worked day and night on a service prototype or proposal … and a group of clients rejects. Anger, disappointment, blame, guilt, … this is unfair. Many teams immediately go back to the drawing board, without the right protocol to deal with failure. The meeting room literally becomes a War Room.

Instead of ending up in this pressure cooker situation, try this:

  1. Respond to failure with a positive physical gesture: put material related to the prototype aside (so you don’t have to stare at it), clean up your desks. Discuss how it could have gone even worse (great to release cynicism and generate first laughs). Put a new, empty flipchart on the wall. Tabula rasa.
  2. Relax: take a time out to do something completely different, with colleagues or alone, go outside for a walk or a run, have a drink, write down your thoughts, watch your favorite funny movie clip or cartoon.
  3. Prepare: back to the drawing board. What is the goal of your common mission, what did your learn of the previous solution/mistake? What do you want to a achieve? What are your priorities?
  4. Initiate game modus: launch a challenge (“how can we”), go out and observe, get everyone to preparer a list of 10 ideas … Just know what gets you and your team members playing to win again.

Time !

Why visual workers get more out of their projects and teams

Abundance of information, “always on, always connected mode“, the growing complexity and interdependences in projects … At a certain point it makes us disconnect. As a client, or as an employee.

Do you wonder how you can keep everyone “on board”? In many projects, I turned to flipchart and markers to get aligned (again) and to give people focus and motivation.

Tap into underused capacity: the largest part of our brain which is dedicated to visuals!

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If our 75% of our neurons are ‘booked’ for processing visual information, the why would you send some more text and numbers to your team members?

Let’s get visual! Here are 3 good reasons: 

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1. Doodling helps you structure your own thoughts, create overview, organize yourself. Activate left brain and right brain together.

2. A visual presentation increases the likeliness of getting your ideas across. It makes ideas tangible, yet invites to give feedback. It also creates a sense of ownership. “If you can draw it, you own it.”

3. Working in a visual way creates greater interaction, makes meetings more dynamic. Jotting things down on a whiteboard gives you the advantage you are all looking at / talking about / working on the same thing.

“But … I can’t draw!” It must be the reason mentioned the most for people to stick to words and numbers.

What if you started practicing a visual approach by yourself, or in a small team, for ex. when you are working on:

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Let me know how it works out for you. Drop me a line. Or a sketch 😉

P.S.: There are other advantages of a visual approach. You want more control over the meeting, grab a marker and start using the flipchart. Just do the test one of your next meetings.

5 espresso’s to beat innovator’s fatigue

What is the difference between a project at the heart of the business (e.g. a product launch, process improvements, sales optimizations) and a ‘peripheral’ project (e.g. a service innovation, a wellbeing or a safety project)?

After 18 months on a project creating new wellbeing services, I would say: you just have more battles to fight for your ideas to get implemented. Because, to many stakeholders, you are second priority (optimist!) next to running day-to-day business.

These battles –and the victories – provide the adrenalin that keeps many entrepreneurs and innovators going (it’s the little Rocky Balboa inside all of us). However, when you and your ideals and ambitions are backed into the corner for the x-ed time, you might need a shot of espresso. Or five:

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1. Ask yourself: who is my (real) client. When you like to do new things (Now! More! Fast!) and you’re not weary of change, people tend to ask you for help. A lot. At some point, you will probably end up doing too many things at the same time. You’ll run the risk your own project objectives are not met. So keep in mind what your client e.g. the project sponsor expects from you. What will help him move ahead?
Your ‘real’ clients are often end users. You might have a vision on what you want to achieve (and a plan and a budget paired to that vision). Check with the end users what part of your vision they are actually ready for, an almost obvious next step in their minds. Go for that in order to get the project moving. If a target group’s concept of wellbeing services is about “no accidents”, an obvious next step might be “no injuries”.

2. Stop inventing new stuff all the time. “I choose 2-3 things to do during a year and I focus on that,” a CSR manager told me. Faut le faire. A pitfall if you want to make things work, is to make a new service or product for every feedback you encounter. Keep your focus, dedicate your energy to simplifying your initiatives (how’s your elevator pitch?), work on one concept and make every single detail fit to it.
The CSR manager dedicated his time to implementing one social innovation: a food product made out of potatoes, manually harvested by minority groups, allowing these people a fair pay. Everything about this product just clicked together like a perfect puzzle. No puzzle ‘clicks’ if you are always creating new pieces.

3. Reinforce the story of your achievements so far. When faced with change or resistance, you might pick up on the negativism, get into emotional discussions. In order to avoid this, arm yourself with a good storyline. Know why you are doing the project (observations, facts!). Know your achievements (facts!). Cfr. point 2, the better your story ‘clicks together’, the less space for resistance and negativism.

4. Innovators, be there for each other. When your project is not advancing the way you would like it to, have a beer with like minded peers. Allow yourself to be angry and get it off your chest. But only order a next round if you are willing to stay out of the cycle of cynicism. No one has ever improved his life by b**ching about something and then doing exactly the same things as before.
Put the blocking factors on the table, make a top 10, discuss how you will tackle them. Make a deal to have some more drinks when you’ll have tackled the first one on the list.
During an innovation bootcamp weekend, our team had done too much divergent thinking. We lost the essence and even the belief in our business idea. We shared our frustrations. Then we got ourselves together, we cut away all the nice to haves and ended the weekend with the most solid and appealing business model pitch since the start of the bootcamp.

5. Fight your own battles. During a recent management gathering, we wanted to create a leadership experience in a time of tough reorganizations, simply by giving compliments in a surprising way. I briefed this idea to a colleague, who got rather enthusiastic about it, and who would in turn discuss it with the actual decision maker. The experience didn’t take place. The colleague lost the battle.
If you have a great idea, YOU should present and defend it yourself. Get a 5 minute timeslot, put your foot in the door, get in the same elevator with the decision maker by coincidence. whatever works. Passion does not take no for an answer.
And if you lose too? “At least lose on your own terms.” (Brad Gilbert’s pep talk to Andre Agassi during Roland Garros’ final)

Drink it while it’s hot!

P.S. If you want to read more about pairing the right activities to certain emotional states as an innovator, I recommend the article “Making The Rollercoaster Work For You” by entrepreneur Cameron Herold on Tim Ferriss’ blog. Herold describes a cycle of emotional states, an “entrepreneurial manic depression” most innovators go through, and how to cope with it rather than trying to change it.

“Are You Still Havin’ Fun?”

What is the secret behind a remarkable shopping experience? After a visit to London’s Gap, Nike and Harrod’s, I would say: to see employees enjoying themselves at work. One of the ‘laws’ in theatre is: the more YOU are enjoying yourself on stage, the more you will catch the crowd’s attention. The more you will touch their hearts. They will identify with you and be a part of the story you tell. 9 GDT geniet van de show

At the Nike store, the employees (they didn’t behave like “shop assistants“, they rather owned their space) looked like personal trainers for every level of sportive ambition. Dressed in Nike gear, dancing, having fun, helping you when you need it and leaving you alone when you feel like walking around the store. At Gap, the bourgois chic salesguys and girls noticed what you were wearing and complimented you on that (especially if you wore Gap, but still). One Gap saleslady taught me a trick that will help me in all future-shopping-for-pants: if a pair of pants fits over your forearm (fist closed), it fits over your hips. Teaching a customer a shopping hack is the best way to show you are happy to help !

These people ‘lived’ the brand in such a way I think what they did wasn’t 100% random. Spontaneous, but no improvisation. In one of the first books on customer experience, The Experience Economy, Pine & Gillmore regularly refer to street theatre when they explain how to create a wow-experience. A street artist has a number of acts up his sleeve and he performs them in an order depending on the interaction with the crowd.

Thank you Eagle Eye Cherry for the blog title. The rest of the song is a warning not to take drugs, so I’ll just stick to the title here. Before you and your team start servicing customers, ask yourself: are you still having fun?

P.S. Were some of those employees at Harrod’s (the rather stiff ones) not having fun? Maybe. Or maybe keeping a distance is a trick up your cufflinked sleeve when you work for a brand that is far away from most customers’ budgets.

A hate or love relationship with change management

Why do people resist? Why do people sometimes resist the next best thing that can happen to them?

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I was thinking of this while I attended to the launch of Harley Lovegrove’s “The Change Manager’s Handbook”, a book I contributed to with cartoons. I drew these cartoons from my own point of view as a change manager. While doing this, I realized I have a love/hate relationship with change management.

The hate (strong word, I know) comes from a certain frustration: you can’t get from idea to realization fast enough or well enough. You feel it’s a good idea, it makes life better. You wish everyone else did as well. But they resist you, who is trying to change the current-and-well-enough state of things.

The love comes from using the energy of resistance to your benefit. The love comes from building up a “fanbase” for your idea, your project. Because in the end, people are happy when they see their lives improve somehow.

… which in turn reminds me of another cartoon:

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I think in the latter, it should be: “who wants to BE changeD”. What am I getting at? Do this check regularly: if you’re giving no one the impression that he or she is being changed by your project, then you won’t create frustration. Not that they’ll love the change, but at least you will.

‘Break down in the shape of things to come’

Everyday we read about companies in transformations, in search for resilience. What does it mean? What if the best definition of ‘resilience’ (*) were in a song title by Audioslave?

This is a great cover, “recorded by 3 Audioslave fans IN 3 different countries, we’ll probably never meet.”

Resilience refers to nature’s ability to recover from any disturbance (rather than trying to predict it) with the skills and resources at hand at that moment. Audioslave’s Chris Cornell describes this song is about “the state of the world today and how we should react to it.”

Hence a company’s challenges is to repuzzle itself (or vital parts of it) in order to react appropriately to changess or disturbances: economical, client relational, reputational, legal, social, political, technological, ethical – you name it.

But how much time and effort does it take an organization to acknowledge the disturbance, repuzzle itself and run in the ‘new mode’?