I am tired.

I’m tired, very very tired of trying to build startups.

So very tired of starting from scratch with every idea. Of the hustling and the hacking. 

I’m tired of hearing people saying ‘No’ and the ‘Oh it’s a great idea but..’.

I’m tired of the apathy – of sending 10,000 emails and having only 10% of recipients read them.

Most of all, I’m tired of the conflict in my head. There are so many ideas and the flow is not stopping anytime soon. I want a way to stop having them. The spirit is like a puppy eagerly prodding me to play but the mind and body is knackered.

These ideas, these pursuits, these startups – however exciting they are and however much I think they are useful to the world, they are stealing my time and that is the only thing I cannot replace.

Sure, I take untold pleasure in each new idea – I totally dance with it and am consumed by it. I won’t have it any other way. That itself takes a toll – it’s exhausting. Conjuring up ways this idea could rock and then building it, that is so so tiring!

I want to give up and take a job in a smallish to medium sized human centered company – or at least one where they genuinely pretend to appreciate my being there and pay me enough money to stay.

I’m tired of making decisions. Tired of being the one that worries how the bills will be paid. Tired of living on a shoestring whilst bootstrapping ideas that rock but don’t sell.

I’m tired of feeling alone in this. Tired of confronting my inadequacies everyday, of doing things that scare me. Of being rubbish at a great many things. I’m tired of learning every damn day. Of things being hard.

I hire people and they are wonderful – but we shoulder different burdens. They seem able to leave the work behind when they log off. They are committed to get their bits done and they care that the idea works – I suspect more because we get on well – but yet – I feel alone. They, understandably are concerned about each part they are responsible for, I am accountable for the whole being more than the sum of the parts.

I’m tired of context switching between the things I have to do to fund the things I love doing. The first is enjoyable and somewhat fulfilling and is entirely about the success of other people. The other is an unparalleled rush – a rollercoaster of everything.

I’m so very tired. Do I rest or do I give up? I don’t really know. I hope it passes soon.

 

Make a donation and I’ll speak with, coach, train or mentor your team for 1 day.

A gift for your company or team.

If your company/team needs a spark to improve it’s delivery capabilites, perspectives, focus, vision, value system and (no tomatoes please) culture. Then I have a gift for you. I’ll trade you a spark for £500 before 5pm BST,  Thursday, May 12th 2016.

If you or your company donate a minimum of £500 to my camino walk for ME/CFS  – and thereby help me reach/exceed my funding target of £3000 by 5pm  BST, on Thursday, May 12th – then I will come to your company/team on a mutually agreed day in July or August to help you improve how you deliver software or any products or service.

Whilst there is no magic to it – just experience, honesty, empathy , a desire to cut through the bullshit and help your company/team rise to new heights. I’ll bring my experience of working with  1500+ people and  180+ teams over the last 11 years as a coach with some of the worlds most successful companies.

Things I can help you  with:

  • super easy way to plan your releases (or even get rid of releases entirely)
  • getting pragmatic on just how agile you need to be to get where you want to get to
  • get *everyone* working together to increase value delivery
  • focus more on sustainable value delivery versus some whacky velocity
  • waste a lot less times in meetings

Just think about it – but not for too long – then donate.

Tick tock, thank you.

ps. Open to everyone, everywhere but… I’ll pay my way to Europe based teams/companies. Anywhere else we need to talk about travel costs.

Downtime in the Age of Cloud Computing

We are working on an experimental mobile based social photography app called Snaptime and we have an ambitious plan to have it on the various app stores by the 1st of February so that people can start to play with it and help us learn what it does [and should do]  for them.

8 hours to try and resolve Plan A

But today we got word from our cloud provider – Digital Ocean -that our server had been sending data out at an alarming rate.  For the non-techie a cloud provider doesn’t provide fluffy clusters of water vapour in the sky,  they provide computers you can access via the internet that are really quick to set up. Anyway, we use this Digital Ocean – for my other startup Amazemeet. We imagined (or used to) they  were our partner in running a reliable service and when some kind of emergency happened, that they would be right with us, working to resolve it.

Well, it turns out this ‘alarming rate’ was 35 million packets of data in a very short time – approximately 18 minutes.  That’s  more than 220 megabytes of data in a 18 minutes.  Their systems detected this and locked down our server and disabled the network connections so the flooding could be contained. They also locked the account.
They both entitled and entirely correct in taking this course of action.

Then they emailed us and asked us to investigate and then explain to them what happened and then they would investigate and consider whether to switch it back on.

Well – so we did – as much as their lock down would allow. Which is not very much – and my 2 emails to them in 8 hours to get assistance went unanswered.

Meanwhile the development is at a standstill. But not for long.

10 minutes to switch to Plan B

Fortunately I keep a backup provider – Vultr.com –  for just these kind of situations and the turnaround time to get a new server, set it up and be back online is frankly hard to imagine possible even 5 years ago.

After 8 hours of getting nowhere, I tired of Digital Ocean’s lack of cooperation in this matter – which lets face it is simply a cheap lesson in picking hosting providers – and made the decision to bring the service back up, things happened rather quickly.

I emailed Digital Ocean to tell them since there seemed to be an impasse and frankly radio silence from them, I had no other choice but to destroy the server (so I didn’t continue to pay for it) . Even to destroy it proved impossible until they removed the lock – which they did on request. In fact – they replied faster to me deleting my server and initiating my plan to move all my services away from Digital Ocean than they did to my requests for assistance. I think that is a poor business decision.

It took me less than 10 minutes to get a new server on Vultr.com, change my Cloudflare settings to point to a new IP address and now my developer is going to take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours to put all the software we need back on it and bring it back to full strength.

Mike Gets Philosophical

I have a saying I recite to myself when things don’t go the way I expect them to – “Don’t get angry, get philosophical”.

Given that we have growing subscribers on Amazemeet who are increasingly relying on our service to be robust and reliable. I consider the relatively unimportant downtime on Snaptime as a dress rehearsal for what the experience of the extent of Digital Ocean’s willingness to help me overcome a revenue impacting service. So this was a cheap lesson of an important subject and for that I am a grateful student.

Downtime in the Age of Cloud Computing means that provisioning metal (thats system administrator speak for getting servers setup) is now a fairly simple, quick and inexpensive task. It also means that with the technical complexity resolved, the battle ground for providers is in customer service and recovery partnership.

In this regard I’m disappointed to say Digital Ocean has let me down. I did like them – or my impression of them – young upstarts daring to grab a sandwich from Amazon’s unconquerable AWS service. The underdogs, the cool kids doing cool things for other cool kids. But alas that is not really the case, from this experience my impression is they really couldn’t give a cockroach’s wotsits about my predicament.

But heigh ho – I simply hop on another cloud and carry on my merry way. Lesson learnt, achievement unlocked for fastest Plan B ever.

 

A week of amazing things.

3 amazing things happened this week

First – the fundraising target for my Long Walk on Camino de Norte was reached in less than 24 hours.
Then I hired a developer to work on an ongoing experiment – SnaptimeApp – and this was the fastest hire on Upwork in 8 years of using the service.
Finally, despite some setbacks, we launched Amazemeet to the world.

Reaching and exceeding my Long Walk fundraising goal

I don’t usually ask people to fund things I believe in – usually I fund to the extent of my means and do the best I can. This time is different.

This time I wanted to create awareness and amplify the amount I was prepared to contribute for a cause so close to my heart.  So I went ahead and created my first ever campaign on Just Giving and set a modest £1000 goal.

Within 12 hours I was 90% to that goal and by the next day , it was entirely funded. This triggered my goal matching and doubled the goal.

To say I’m blown away is an understatement – I was thrilled to tears – sobbing as I read the messages of support and having my faith in humanity rekindled to a blaze.
Thank you so very much.

The campaign has so far raised £2050+ for the Invest in M.E charity.  I have since increased the goal to £3000. There are 15 or so weeks to the start of my walk and there is still plenty of time for you and others to contribute to this effort and truly make a difference getting both help and justice for the sufferers of this brutal condition. Please support generously.

As I chatted with my best friend Joel about how the fundraising was going – he said he had been researching the Camino de Santiago and discovered his family namesake – Robert Langton – the Bishop of Salisbury and Winchester – had also walked and documented his Camino in 1520. So now this is getting weird  but pleasantly so. I guess everything is connected after all.

Record awesome hire on Upwork

Since I joined the freelance work platform in 2007 , I have been convinced that for any digital work,  the future is freelancing and remote freelancing at that and Upwork (formerly oDesk) is an amazing platform dedicated in bringing that future to the present.

In all the time that I have been using it – my average time to find and hire talented people has been pretty short – from 5 hours to a couple of days. This week, however, I beat this record with a time to find and hire of 90 minutes and that included 2 Skype based interviews. That is a phenomenal time – made only possible by the work that Upwork has done to facilitate the interactions between providers and purchasers.

Amazemeet launched

The startup that I have been building for the last 12 months was finally launched this week – although it didn’t go out on the 14th of January as I had hoped – we got it all lined up and released on Saturday 16th January.

This has been a real labour of love and I’m incredibly proud of the work me and my team has done on this. Now to see the workers of the world – fed up with crappy meetings – show it some love.

Please check it out and share it. You may very well save someone’s life with it 🙂

My Web Summit 2015 Experience – the really short version.

TL;DR

Web Summit was a major experience.  There were a lot of people – the organisers claim 42,000 people were in attendance – and it felt it.
If you aren’t a people person don’t go.

If you are exhibiting, go to a busy vegetable market or car boot sale a few weeks in advance and learn to engage and trade. Otherwise you are wasting your time.
This is exactly what it’s like.

I personally consider The Alpha track to have been great value. Even after flights and accommodation, it worked out at about €800 per person. We made leads, tested product fit of the app with a wider audience and made some really great contacts.

On the other hand, it is blatantly obvious that profit is a major thing for the organisers – pay very little out, bring as much as you possibly can in. Even if that means screwing people over. The debacle of the food tokens demonstrates this perfectly.

There were some really cool exhibitors and some speakers – I tried to see all the exhibitors but only 3 really sparked my interest. There seemed to be a multitude of people doing things that were not really solving a problem or solving a known problem differently.

If you were attracted by the quality of the ‘celebrities’ and the possibility of rubbing shoulders with successful and influential peeps – you would be out of luck – they were there but not mixing and as my speaker friend said ‘oh they are all in there, but no one is coming out – there is food there and its not so crowded’.  I don’t really blame them.

The WIFI also classically sucked. Given the much reported problem from last year’s event, you would have expected such focus on getting that bit right. I met at least 10 alpha track cohorts negatively affected by this. Such a lack of attention to detail on a sensitive issue speaks volumes to my earlier point about profiteering. We even joked there was a lot of ‘summit’ but not enough ‘web’.

Ultimately the organisers are awesome at what they do – marketing, data mining and building their business – whatever you as the attendee or exhibitor gets seems accidental. They deserve alot of respect for that alone.

I personally got very little value from the talks – with such a huge range of people, I can appreciate the speakers easily going for the lowest common denominator level to pitch their talks.

So, Web Summit – it is like the Eiffel Tower. You only really need to see it once. We won’t be going back.

The long bit is coming in another post. Too busy, can’t complete.

Why every business is a startup or soon will be.

Every business – however large and however profitable – is a startup. Or is about to be. The big WTF is that they just don’t realise it yet.

This epiphany struck me recently and life hasn’t been the same since. I am eternally grateful to Massimo Lucchina for stating the simple truth behind this and triggering the idea that follows.

A Successful business model is a non-loss making one.

Steve G Blank, in his book – “The Startup Owner’s Manual” – defines a startup as ‘ an organisation searching for a repeatable and sustainable business model’.

When I first read this and applied Steve’s ideas to my own startups, I made the rookie mistake of thinking it was a one off search. I committed my time and resources to validating my idea and doing customer development, sure, I needed to do that – every startup does. The mistake is thinking is was a one off activity and this thinking can lead to unsustainable behavior.

When you are going from zero customers and revenue to something enough to quit your day job for, it can seem like you only have to do this searching thing once and yes, it can take ages.

Whilst searching, you might twist and turn as you try and find that seam of gold in a grotty old mine. If you take the right kind of risks, you might find enough of this seam to generate some revenue and gain early customers. You might even make enough to print some decent business cards, move out of your parents’ garage, hire some people and get into business.

What you soon realise is that a business model is a relative thing. The model needs to generate at least as much – if not – more revenue than your costs – hence profit. The trouble is that as you grow revenue, gain new customers, expand your market share – possibly with the same products and services – your costs grow too.

So a business model is about the relationship between revenue and costs and a successful one is where revenue trumps costs most of the time.

You die because your heart stops

Just as the heartbeat is proof of life, so it is that consistently not making a loss – in the case of successful non profits – and consistently turning a profit – in the case of for-profits – is the indicator of life in business. Many things can kill a business, but how it dies is that it becomes increasingly loss making and ultimately insolvent or euthanised before that point.

What happens when revenues do not grow as fast as costs are rising?
Or when costs remain constant or daresay, even drop, but so do your revenues?
Quite simply, what does your business do when revenue does not  match or even outpace costs and your once successful model is losing steam?

There is some value in understanding how this might happen because there may be some learning into what the next twist, turn or pivot that your business needs to take to regain its mojo. I’ll write another post that delves into the various ways this slow failing model can happen.

Suffice to say, every business will encounter this problem and will continue to encounter it whilst they exist. In fact the reason they cease to exist will be singularly because their business model fails and they are unable to find another one quickly enough.

Whilst the triggers for a previously successful business model starting its descent from profitability to oblivion can differ between business and industries, the symptoms are always the same – declining profits.

Every business hitting a growth ceiling will either hover around it , drop from it or crash through it.

So, let’s assume for a moment that you get from zero customers to current break even – hurray you are officially an unofficial non-profit. You might tick along for a while. What this looks like in real life might be that:
You don’t gain any more customers,
Or don’t charge your existing customers any more for the same offering.
Or you charge them more for something new, but still only matching costs.
Or you are gaining as many customers as you are losing

Basically what you have is equilibrium. This business has found a ceiling and is hovering around it. It is not simply a revenue ceiling. It is a growth ceiling – honouring the relationship between costs and revenue.

This situation is actually identical to a company that has grown from $100m to , say, $1bn revenues. Heck, some of that growth might even have resulted in profit. Though now they find themselves steadfastly unable to break through that revenue ceiling, often falling just below it or even accidentally crossing it momentarily.

Both business are hovering, simultaneously trying to stop dropping away whilst unsuccessfully trying to break through. But only one of these is in a worse shape than the other.

Can you work out which one and why?

The only difference between these two examples is how far each has to fall and how much it has at its disposal to both prevent it from falling and propel it crashing through the ceiling.

To break through a ceiling *always* requires a search for a new business model i.e becoming a startup.

This sounds drastic – and it often is. Though in practice, the new business model is a variation of the previous one. Business models are merely versions of each other – each iteration a new version beyond the previous one.

Businesses hovering beneath a growth ceiling must – quite simply – find a different way to make money. This may be new product or service offerings; or the same products in new markets or radically change the revenue vs costs relationship – usually by slashing costs, because revenues aren’t budging.

I believe though that this last option is really one of the dumbest things a business in this situation can do – especially if it is not *yet* in dire straits. Ahem , Yahoo.

Why reducing your search capacity during a search a dumb idea.

If you buy into my assertion that breaking through the growth ceiling is a search problem, then it becomes clear that a search often benefits from having as many eyes involved in coordinated search effort as possible.

Imagine a search for a chest full of pure gold doubloons in the Atlantic Ocean.
Can you imagine starting with 100 people with skin in the search and then firing them , reducing the search effort down to 50 people. Clearly to search the Atlantic, you need as many people and vessels to search the space as possible. Why would you knowingly reduce that effort?

Costs aside, the only reason I observe that this might be done is because those doing the reducing do not have the skills to effectively coordinate this many people in a search. This assumes they even recognise that searching is what they need to do.

Once you have broken through a ceiling, the clock is reset and starts ticking again.

Just when you thought it was safe to put away the search lights and whistles because your new business model has been found, you discover that you simply are now on a countdown to reaching the next ceiling. The most prudent thing you can possibly do is to recognise this and begin to explore and create options for the inevitable next growth ceiling.

I am discovering a new passion and it is that beyond each growth ceiling is a new way of thinking and approach, to get momentum to make the next ceiling easier to crash through and to make the next hover as short as possible.

Look around you and see if you can identify the ceilings in the companies you know. Can you observe how they are trying to crash through the ceiling?

I would really love to hear your views and experiences around this idea – I’m still developing it. Tweet or comment and make my day!


Featured Image By: Jan FidlerCC BY 2.0

Take Back Sharing: Why #Uber , #Lyft and #AirBnB are not part of the sharing economy

Sharing is… a babysitting circle

When my wife was growing up, her parents  – like many young parents of the day – needed to organize childcare.

They were far away from extended family and only had other young families around them. So they organised around shared needs – all the young families needed to have some respite from their kids once in a while.

So they formed a babysitting circle. There was no money involved – they simply took turns looking after each others’ children and if someone needed to take multiple turns, they basically gave an IOU and paid back in additional sitting when required.

Sharing is… esusu or a Voluntary Credit Union

Growing up in Yorubaland, there was a credit structure where members contributed a fixed amount into a pot and each month, one of the members would take the entire pot.

Example: if there are 12 friends and each contributes $1000 into the pot every month, then every month, one person could take $12,000. By taking the pot, they go to the end of the queue – they can’t take from the pot for another 11 months.

This structure is great for large purchases or one-off large financial needs. There is no interest or APR nonsense. Simply pooling and sharing of resources. It gave each member the strength of 12, once a year.

Sharing is…. a Lift Into Work

At my very first programming job, I caught a ride with my friend Paul Green.

He had a nice car, I didn’t have one – but more importantly he lived close enough to me and was happy to give me a ride to and from work.

Paul never asked for any payment, though I did buy him a tank of fuel every week or occasionally I paid for his lunch.

Sharing is… street Wi-Fi

When I lived in the UK, I once asked my neighbors if they would like to share WiFi. It made no sense to me that we should each pay £20 a month, when for a single payment of £40 we could buy a router and share only one ADSL subscription.

I was surprised when they declined. You cannot help some people.

Sharing is… oranges and lemons

Today I live in Spain. There are lots of orange and lemon trees and so much fruit is wasted because , often, it is more expensive to pick them and sell them than it is to leave them where they fall.

Most times when we go into my local butcher, we are offered bags of oranges and lemons – for free. Sometimes my other neighbors with orange trees will happily brings us bags of oranges. Free.

Sharing is good. It brings us together, reduces waste and helps us meet our shared needs in a very human way.

And then there are Uber, Lyft and AirBnb

The ‘sharing’ economy has been described as the economy where individuals with an asset – a car or housing – could rent out the asset when they weren’t using it.

How is this sharing? How is this not the same as the Hilton group of hotels renting out its rooms or the Yellow Cab company renting out its spare seats to commuters?

The only difference is that the owner of the asset is an individual, not a recognised business entity. This does not make it sharing. At least not the sharing that generates positive emotion and meeting shared needs.

Calling what Uber, Lyft and AirBnB do ‘sharing’ is fraud. It is a misappropriation of a word. It is a hijacking of a noble intent for the purposes of marketing what are essentially platforms to create small sized businesses, whose motivation is to make money.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I support Uber, Lyft and AirBnb, if only because they are disrupting the established order of things – but I disagree deeply with the use of the word ‘sharing’ to describe what they do. It is nothing more than marketing bullshit.

So I have a really small ask. Uber, Lyft , AirBnB and others in the same mould of creating platforms that enable mass supplier markets; the press that reports on these kind of businesses and everyone involved in them – please stop calling what you do ‘The Sharing Economy’.

Thank you.

Why This Matters

This matters because there is a real sharing economy and it is not driven by profit. Its participants are the kinds I have described above. They are  individuals and businesses who are trading non-financial assets for their own mutual benefits and usually shared need – not profit.

It matters because a sharing economy focuses on shared needs and trust to work together to meet them. It takes deep trust and the skills and emotional investment to establish such trust to make a sharing economy successful. The participants of a sharing economy are not relying on a Terms of Service or the threat of litigation to police their trust based agreement.

It matters because admitting purely transactional, profit driven participants into this economy diminishes everyone else and reduces the power of the idea of sharing. It confers an undeserved legitimacy to such participants like Uber and AirBnb. It is putting the wolves dressed like sheep amongst the sheep.

Do you agree with how ‘sharing’ is being used? What have been your experiences of participating in the sharing economy?

I’d love to talk more about this. Consider leaving a comment below or tweeting @mhsutton.


Featured Image By: vishwaant avkCC BY 2.0

What the Croods taught me about #Startups.

Know when to use a search party and when to form a kill circle.

There is a great scene in the movie The Croods where the following exchange took place between Grug — the father of the neandertal Croods family — and Guy — their homosapien travelling companion, as they are confronted by a huge maze of tunnels that lay between them and their destination.

Grug: Are you saying we should split up?

Guy: We can try more paths at once, it’s the fastest way through!

Grug: We stick together, your way isn’t safe!

The challenge selects the strategy

What has an animation got to do with startups?

Well, as I watched this movie a few times over — my kids made me do it — I really appreciated the lesson this scene was teaching me.

This maze was a new challenge — a search through a bunch of potential options for a sustainable route to their goal. Everything that had gone before was business as usual — avoiding falling rock and a menagerie of exotic beasts with really sharp teeth. For those challenges, the existing Croods family strategy of a ‘kill circle’ — where they form a circle and basically kill whatever threatens them — worked reasonably well.

But the new challenge of the maze requires a different strategy — something that was pretty foreign to what the Croods had experienced thus far.

To Guy it was clear — to get through this maze we need to spread out and ‘try more paths at once’.

This is just the same with startups. It is a maze with many tunnels — some are dead ends, but there are a few ways that lead you out of the maze to the goal. In the case of startups — the goal is product-market fit and repeatable/scalable business model.

For this maze you need a search party, not a kill circle.

Why is this important?

Knowing this can save your startup huge amounts of wasted time, effort and opportunity and can avoid prematurely forming set piece company structures.

Knowing and accepting this idea of what a startup is can help you focus and it guides where investment — what little there might be — is directed.

It also helps direct the energy of everyone to a single purpose — not building stuff or hiring specialists or getting fancy addresses and furniture — but doing whatever you need to do to search for product-market fit and repeatable business model.

Knowing this also makes the job of leadership in any startup much clearer and simpler — recognise the challenge and mobilise the strategy. Both these things clearly take a particular set of skills that startup founders would be well advised to develop — perhaps before they rush into product making!

Searching. Execution considered harmful

If you lost something really valuable in a field, how might you find it?

Consider if you could invite all your various specialist friends to come help you search for it, how might they do that. What special skills would the doctor bring? Or the plumber? Would it be out of place for your friend — who is a butcher — to set up shop selling sausages while you search for your missing treasure?

The point is when you are searching you need 3 things.

  1. Tactics and leads about where to search and how to conduct the search. Diversity is key here, how do you use the unique skills and talents of your team to devise tactics and leads? Do you even know what they unique skills and talents the individuals on your team have?
  2. People actually doing the search — the more the better — remember “we can try more paths at once”. Everyone should be involved in this — it doesn’t make much sense for them not to be.
  3. Finally you need an effective and, preferably inexpensive, way to keep the search coordinated and information flowing. In the Croods, Guy gives everyone a seashell which they must blow to attract attention if they find a way out or get stuck. Simple but effective.

If you are focusing on anything other than this — in my opinion — you are wasting time, money and opportunity.

I see so many startups with their engineers busy looking at building stuff, creating coding standards, scaling infrastructure and impressive, resilient frameworks and they delegate the search to their marketing person or growth hackers.

What does ‘searching’ look like in startups

The trouble with any metaphor is that it has its limits.

So the key message I learned from the Croods is that to explore a maze, split up to explore more paths and options faster and do it in a coordinated way.

But how does that apply, in practice, to startups?

That will be the subject of my next blog post on the subject.


The still from The Croods is copyright of Dreamworks Animation 2013. All Rights Reserved.

#Startups, do you have a solution looking for a problem?

I’m having a wonderful time being helpful on SoHelpful.me.

So many different people – with amazing stories – reaching out to and trusting a complete stranger to help them via experience, learning and a diverse perspective.

Recently I met with Greg – a super smart engineer with a really interesting invention who sought to understand how to turn customer interviews into an investment pitch. After a few minutes of conversation and hearing about where he is at with his startup work, I concluded that he has a different and more pressing problem.

He has a solution looking for a problem.

If you use Lean Startup or Steve Blank’s Customer Development approach, you’ll probably be doing it the other way round.

With Customer Development , we find and validate a problem that people have and try and solve it for them. It is a very successful strategy that delivers learning, risk reduction and human connection in a neat little package. But that is not the only way to build a startup. Sometimes – especially if you are a maker – you go ahead and make something and then try and figure out who might use it.

Solutions are always from a problem

I can’t think of anything that is devised as a solution that wasn’t problem driven. It might be a problem you have or one that is well publicised that many people have. It might be real or imagined. The problem might exist today or might be a logical future result of how things are evolving in the present. But solutions mostly always stem from a problem.

What we do in Lean Startup and Customer Development is – through experiments – tests the assumptions we make about the problems.

Work backwards, look for assumptions

As the conversation progressed with Greg, it was clear to both of us that he had built something for his own very specific problem and was now trying to sell it to the wider world. Almost all of the interviews he had were about markets and how to access them. Almost none were about a problem someone had. Even in established markets where you think you have a Unique Selling Point – USP – you are better off validating that your USP is both unique and a selling point – with actual people.

So to help Greg understand his situation better, I asked him to tell me how he thought his product might be used. This is a great technique – tell a story of who uses and how they might use it.

Well, the person that uses this might have a need for this much output and they may want to use that much storage and my product gives them that flexibility

Stop. Rewind.  We just found three assumptions.

  1. “They might need this much output”,
  2. “They might need that much storage” and
  3. They value the flexibility.

This gives Greg something to start better customer development – he can take a few steps back and design experiments to test those assumptions.

As he designs his experiment, he can explore where to find people who use similar products or are trying to address the problem but with similar products. Once he’s found them, he can start conversations with them – not about his product – but about his understanding of the problem. Those conversations will inevitably lead to other learning and new assumptions and we continue doing experiments until we have enough validated information to do the next thing.

The moral of the story is…

The fact that you have a product does not mean it is marketable. It means you got over enthusiastic and built something that was scratching your own itch – nothing wrong with that – or you simply wanted to do something fun and interesting – definitely nothing wrong with that!

But reality check yourself. Sure it was fun and it probably was perfect for your problem but unless you establish product-market fit, it is almost certainly not marketable as it stands.

A really straightforward way to determine product-market fit is to turn it into a problem-solution question. Once you positively answer this question with actual data, then the next thing is to determine whether the problem is perceived enough to have people pay money for the solution. Then you have a marketable product. Then you can go try and seek investment and all the other things the cool kids do.

Are you stuck with your startup? Do you have a product that you are struggling to find market fit for? I don’t have any answers, just a difference set of experiences and perspectives through which we might together find answers in. Check me out on http://sohelpful.me/mikesutton and lets get a conversation started.

 


Featured Image By: Eva CristescuCC BY 2.0

Fab.com: It is a fucking startup and…

I read the post that Fab.com’s CEO – Jason Goldberg – published on his Tumblr site and I sought and failed to find a way to comment directly on the post. From what I could tell, people can only repost – not comment – on posts on Tumblr?

Anyway, as I read what seemed to be a very open and honest update on where the CEO of Fab.com thinks their restructuring is at right now, I have very mixed feelings about a lot of what Jason says and how he says it. Given I have no inside info on how Fab works internally, I can only surmise from the CEO’s words.

Here is what I would have said and some of the questions I would have asked had I been able to comment on the tumblr post:

Yes – you are a fucking startup, again! At some point you had it all going for you – the billion dollar valuation, the love and adoration of the media – everything. Do you have all the perspectives of what went wrong? What lessons did you learn? How do you apply that learning. If you are restricting your learning to your management team – I can almost guarantee this will not be the last time you taste the humbling effect of demotion to a startup from thriving business.

Yes, you had experienced huge layoffs and are battered and bruised from it – but how did you grieve? How did your colleagues grieve? As ‘leader’ how did you facilitate the support of others? Loss is a huge driver of behaviour and we all think we know how it works because, hell, it is part of life. Even now as you rally troops – do you know how the loss of colleagues and a dream affects those whom you rally?

Yes – you are a fucking startup and startups are hard, so why are you making it harder by still ‘assembling and managing the right people’. Of all the times to grasp a different way of leadership – this is it. You alone don’t have all the answers, not even the ‘right’ people you might have hired. Yet you are lucky to have a lot of good – yes bruised and battered – people and you all together have more of the answers. The question is how do you have the conversations that you need to have and how will you help harness and unleash their awesomeness on your turnaround?

Yes, you are a fucking startup and you are ready for war. You say this is ‘wartime’. People die in war and almost all who escape death are left with wounds that never heal. People also kill in war. Who or what are your enemies? Is that really the analogy you want? If you choose to stick with ‘war’ then remember that the skills to win a war are not the skills to thrive in peace. Ask countless guerilla leaders from Alexander the Great to Robert Mugabe. Do you have the skills to recognise and lead in ‘peace’ – whatever that means in your context? Finally remember that most great guerilla leaders tend to turn peace into war in order for them to ‘manage’ effectively.

Yes, you are a startup – or at least you want something from that culture. From what I can surmise, you want the ‘right’ people to be committed and to work tirelessly, remaining focused. How do you intend to help them do that? Can you have the benefits of that culture without having the challenges from which that culture emerges? Can you have the challenges in a ‘turnaround’?

Yes, you are a fucking startup and no, brutal honesty is not part of my experience of a startup. Honesty without the brutality is. Is a company where honesty is violent really what you want? Where is the violence in your organisation, how can you find it and neutralise it or- better still – channel it into something positive. I can guarantee you do not need the violence that words like ‘brutal’ encourage in your re-imagined company.

Yes, you are a fucking startup – and in every single startup I have seen and met, there is uncertainty and fear. There is also Joy – some times pure and unbounded Joy. Of making and being with other dreamers, the Joy of making a ‘ding’ in the world. Or simply the Joy of Whatever. Where is the Joy in Fab.com and how do you hope to nurture it, how do you find it, amplify and make it the single reason for being. The thing that makes all challenges seem achievable.

Finally, yes – you are a fucking startup. But actually wait, no, you are not.
You are a deeply broken business company. A startup is not 750 people or even 300 – it is small, it is nimble and it pivots without mass nausea. A startup is not valued at $1 billion while raising $150 million. That is a business, not a startup. A startup is people being pretty equal and pretty fluid – doing what needs to be done. More importantly, a startup is searching for its model. Fab.com is not. You had a model – probably one that is still viable.

I think you are searching for your soul and that needs a different set of skills to find. Do you have them? How can you find them and how can you spread them to everyone still left in your company?

Jason – I work with broken companies and I can help with yours. You seem a pretty decent dude, who has peeked into the abyss and is doing something to find and retrieve the soul of his company back from the darkness. I would be happy to help. Email, tweet or call me and let’s have the conversation.

Hey #Startups, the Investment Microsteps in customer development are really important

If you are using Lean Startup to build your startup, you’ll know the importance of validating the problem you are trying to solve with people who actually have that problem. Steve Blank calls this customer development or getting out of the building.

Recently I have been helping other startup founders out with what I am learning so far on the very awesome platform – that is a startup itself – SoHelpful.me

Earlier this week a really interesting guy called Peter booked a session to chat about his startup and his customer development questions.

I’m no pro – I’m learning this stuff as well and have my own particular weaknesses but over the last year I have forced myself to love customer development and it has been worth it – it gets me out, talking to real people about real problems. Effective customer development is the number one problem I think startups have.

Speaking with Peter about his idea, he shared that he had interviewed about 150 people to hear their biggest problems with the area he was focused on. I thought this was awesome – to actually get out of his house and find 150 people, talk to them and record their responses is pretty impressive. So I had to ask:

Why do you need to speak with me?

He had these responses, but wasn’t sure the next steps were to use them effectively. I asked if he had anyway to contact the same people again and he said he had asked for and received email addresses for about 50% of the people he interviewed. Brilliant!

Of course – like in the classic tale of the beautiful girl at the bar that the guy has been hitting on all night – some of those email addresses might well be fake, but I think there are still a good number that would be genuine. Peter’s idea solves a real problem.

This is where the insight into investment microsteps come in.

Investments 101: Investments, currency and return.

An investment is something you have that you put towards something you want. It can be an asset (incl money) , time , effort or a combination of all three – these are called the currency. The valuable thing you get back is called the return.  You invest some currency to make a return – usually something that is greater in value to you than the currency you invested.

How well the investment does is called the ‘Return On Investment’ – usually a ratio or percentage.

Sometimes investments are straightforward.
You invest $100 in a stock and over a year you make $50 on top of your $100. So your ROI is 50%.
Or you spend 15 minutes a day working out and in the summer you have the body that everyone drools over at the beach. The ROI on that is much harder – though not impossible – to calculate. I like to think, like Mastercard, it is priceless.

What are “Investment Microsteps”?

So in customer development, our ultimate goal is to learn and validate the problems that people have and that we – the promising startup – are hoping to solve for them.

We are also trying to validate that they will pay for us solving that problem for them because you can fix problems for lots of people and that is awesome. What is even more awesome is that someone is willing to pay you something to solve that problem for them. This is the monetisation challenge.
Is the solution valuable enough for your customer for them to invest in it? Without this or another source of recurring revenue, your startup is not a business.

Whilst getting clear feedback that people would pay you to solve the problem is the holy grail of customer validation – I notice that we tend to undervalue what I call the microsteps to get there.

When someone agrees to invest some of their currency, they are making an investment decision and expect  – at some level – a return on that investment. And in customer development when you have confirmed they are willing to pay you for the problem you validated – that is a major investment.
The smaller investments they make until then – the meetings, the coffees, the 5 minutes here and there, the emails they read, the surveys they take, the email addresses they volunteer are all little investments they make in you and your idea.

I call these the investment microsteps.

Let’s look at an example through this viewpoint:

Imagine you go out to find 10 people to interview about what they find frustrating about ordering pizza.

The firm ‘No’

You approach 50 people , asking each if they would be willing to spare 5 minutes to help you with this research. 30 people each – for whatever reason – say ‘no’.
Those are 30 people who were unwilling at that time to invest 5 minutes of time – a currency – to get any kind of return from you. There is some learning here too – why did they say ‘No’. How might you get them to say ‘Yes’?

The early ‘No’

The remaining 20 people stop and invest the 5 minutes, but when you then request a further investment – would they be willing to give you their email address or telephone number so that you can keep them updated with the progress – 10 say ‘No’. They did not get the return they valued enough from the previous investment to further investment. This could be for a bunch of reasons – understanding what they are is important but a topic for another post.

The More Committed Investors

The final 10 do volunteer their email addresses – they are willing to make the further investment. This doesn’t necessarily mean they will ultimately pay for whatever solution you devise to their problems, but – for now- they are willing to help you as long as you help them. And simply – how you help them is by giving them a return on their investment.

Every Investment Deserves a (Early) Return

How many startup founders who actively do customer development appreciate what just happened? Do you?

Every investment deserves a return – even if that return is an email a week later to say:

Hey thanks for agreeing to get updates, the research is going well and I will have some specific questions for you next week to help me under ….

If you leave it too late – they struggle to remember who you are and maybe even the return that they visualised when they made the investment.
When I get an email from a business I met 2 years ago who now just decided to do something with their email list, I shake my head and giggle  – as I click the unsubscribe button. Even when the new approach is made with an offer – say a discount – I still am rarely interested.

By now  – if you are using lean startup – you probably realise that authenticity goes a long way. If you engage regularly with people who made an investment in you, then you should do so personally or as personable as possible. That is part of the return value. An example of personable in the case of email is greeting with their first name and mentioning something specific about your interaction

Putting it all together

Recognising that people make microsteps of investment helps you approach the design of your customer development better. You can think ahead about how you might be able to make a valuable return to every investment that is made. Even down to how you appreciate the refusal to make an investment.

I believe – although I have no evidence to back this up – that the more that a person is prepared to invest in your customer development activities the more they care about the problem and the higher the likelihood that they will pay for the solution for their problem. I also believe that whether or not you sign them up as a paying customer , you will end up with a great member of a loyal group of followers that you can come back to – so long as you recognise, respect and return on their investments.

How are you doing customer development?

Do you recognise this insight in your customer development work?

I’d love to learn and share. Please comment below or hit me up on Twitter. Please consider sharing this post – it could help someone you love.

If you would like my help with anything you are puzzled about on your startup, company improvement or software process – hook up with me on soHelpful.me and let’s get a conversation started!

 


Featured Image By: Simon CunninghamCC BY 2.0

What Happens Next: Introducing The Improvement Partnership

Following my successful and very insightful 6-week free remote coaching experiment, I am delighted to introduce a new service that is primarily designed for passionate companies who are committed to getting incrementally better – whatever better means for them – and who have tired of the buzzword bingo that is costly and generally ineffectively applied.

Please show some love for my service: The Improvement Partnership.

The Improvement Partnership is about creating partnerships amongst willing participants within companies and teams and with me, with the single purpose of helping them build incrementally better versions of themselves.

In this partnership model, people participate because they care, have been invited open-heartedly and are respected vs they are made to do it by their managers or pressured by their peers and reviewed by how well they do (or don’t).

What Problems Does The Improvement Partnership Address?

  1. Many businesses are clambering to do agile, Scrum etc. Unfortunately their mission becomes doing the thing versus solving their fundamental problems. This is further compounded by overhyped training offering misleading certifications. They spend the money, but remain unhelped.
  2. Coercion and violence in organisations that seek to improve themselves. Traditional management structures promote mandated processes and imposed help.
  3. High cost of hiring consultants to do the work that is both most appropriately and most sustainably done by employees – who are usually the ones who are feeling the pain.
  4. The broad brush implementations of frameworks that are peddled, regardless of what the actual problems are.
  5. The lack of accessible, experienced, empathic and independent help to support improvement work in many companies.
  6. Current alternatives are hugely disruptive and create even more pressure in an already pressurised system of tight deadlines and tension.

How it Works

Organisation as a Product

My newly designed framing metaphor is to imagine the Organisation as a Product.

We now know a huge amount about building software and products well and I want to apply that learning back to human systems. The metaphor is a good one and has limits  – as all metaphors do.

So I ask you:

If your company/team was a product, who would be its customers and users, what value does it generate for them? What are its current known ‘bugs’ and what are its capabilities/features.

What would its next and better version be like? What bugs would be fixed, what new/different value would it offer and what capabilities would it provide?

My Approach

I work with a 4 step approach to partnership – you can read more about it on the site, but briefly it is:

Make the Invitation – Version the Organisation, NOW and NEXT – Build towards NEXT – Review, Reflect and Adapt.

There is no magic to this, there is only passionate people working in partnership and overcoming anything , together. Maybe that is the magic.

Remote Partnering

Making the Invitation and Versioning the Organisation will be done face to face with clients and is achieved in the TIPStart workshop – a 2 day deep exploration onsite workshop that is held with everyone interested in participating.

It is here that the fundamentals of human collaboration will be established, where we set the shared purpose, explore shared values and create the strong relationships that will help down the line.

The TIPStart is the starting point for every client partnership and it where we emerge what work we need to build and assemble volunteer working groups to own the work.

Then we all go home and start collaborating remotely as partners, establishing optimal cadences to collaborate in working groups; and reviewing collectively as we work.

Fundamentally we work from the problems that people are experiencing and the capabilities they want to build. The solutions will emerge.

I help by bringing my passion , 20+ years of distilled learning, knowledge, experience and networks to help my partners find solutions that work for them. I help by facilitating, mentoring, coaching, pairing on research or code, training and anything else that offers value to my clients’ reaching the NEXT version. It may be agile or a something based on a combination of many different practices and techniques. It will almost never be the stock Scrum, Kanban or SAFe. (I say almost because of the theoretical possibility that it is never ‘never’!!).

Warning: What I Offer Is Not For Everyone

My aim in partnership is to help maximise Joy and Effectiveness for all participants and my client partners. My style supports that and is based on a fundamental belief in the equality of all humans regardless of rank or experience any other factor. Some individuals might not share that view. That is OK – I just won’t work with them.

There are many – I worked with 4 in my experiment – who will and I’m betting there are many more.

I Need Your Help

It would be hugely valuable to me if you would be willing to help me test my message on the site.

  • How does the site flow?
  • What do you understand the value to be?
  • How do you feel when you explore the site?
  • If you work in any of the roles in the ‘Who I Help’ section? How well does it resonate with you?
  • What do you think I need to focus more/less/none on?

Please send feedback via email: me[at]mhsutton.me

Finally, I would love if you would consider sharing The Improvement Partnership.
I really am as good as they say and you could be helping someone you care about out by tweeting about it, sharing via email or blogging about it.

My conclusions from doing 30 days of free remote organisation coaching

By: Oza MeilleurCC BY 2.0

In December, I made this offer and invited help to learn how it might work. I got 11 responses and chose 3 organisations to work with. As the experiment evolved, I shared some early lessons and more here.

With the experiment now complete, here are some conclusions I can draw both from qualitative feedback from doing the experiment and quantitative feedback from surveys conducted during the experiment.

Always face to face before going remote. Always!

I had two groups that I met with and worked with, face to face,  for 2 days as a kickstart to the experiment. During this time I made the invitation  as sincerely as I possibly could, reinforcing it regularly during the workshops in my actions and through my language.

This facetime was essential in creating the bridges through which future collaboration. People had online conversations with a friendly personality they knew by name and sight and someone they had laughed with and exchanged stories with vs simply a voice on the end of the phone.

The third group did not have the facetime, we simply spent 2-3 hours online using tools to create the improvement lists and to make the invitation. Whilst this may have generated the same outputs – stuff to improve – I don’t think it we ended with the same outcomes – great rapport and bridges. This third group whilst still somewhat engaged, lost interest very quickly and had fewer collaborative sessions with me and with each other.  I also got quantitative feedback that this group would have preferred a face to face workshop at the start.

Remote work tools generally suck

I tried to keep tools to a minimum. Mostly we used google docs and Trello for online collaboration. For communications I tried lots of different tools – iMeet, Skype, GotoMeeting and Google hangouts.

Each tool had its benefits and drawbacks, but the take-away for me is that anything that travels on the interweb is going to be slow and unpredictable at various times. So I need backups and alternatives.

Most effective for me, was not the tech but the design of the sessions. The secret for me was to have shorter sessions with fewer people and to use video sparingly, maximise visual collaboration – ex: google docs to draw vs speak.

Buzzwords like “Agile”, “Scrum” are turn offs

From the very first improvement workshop – it was clear to me that people lost interest in the conversation when we talked on Scrum, Kanban and even Agile. The conversation suddenly stopped being about them – the people and their needs – but about the tools.

Everyone had some opinion why ‘technique A’  wouldn’t work. Different ‘truths’ about how these techniques work and experiences of ‘how’ they work.

At the risk of introducing yet another over-used word, I tried to steer the groups away from dwelling too much on techniques, but focus instead on outcomes and on some fundamental truths.

Keep the focus on effectiveness

Overwhelmingly across all the groups, ‘effectiveness’ was the key word that everyone could get their head round. It wasn’t divisive – even if we didn’t define it explicitly, everyone had a similar understanding that it was about making things better.

I  helped by offering my perspective on 4 elements of ‘effectiveness’: Value – what we are building/doing, Flow – how smoothly are we building/doing it , Quality – how suitable for purpose it is and how easily are we able to keep doing it and, finally, Joy – how do we each feel doing what we are doing.
(Major hat tip to Emergn and Joshua Arnold for their invaluable work on Value, Flow and Quality  – VFQ).
I invited everyone to consider effectiveness to be these 4 elements in balance; or the first 3 at levels that keep the 4th – joy – high and trending higher.

Most people – more than 80% of all participants – understood and agreed with this simple perspective on effectiveness.

Improvements take time and persistence

Without a doubt, the energy of the workshops and the enthusiasm for improvement was really high at the end of the workshops with all the groups. I believe the openness of the invitation helped the participants give the whole thing the benefit of the doubt and participate more fully. I was really impressed, yet concerned.

I worried about how could we transfer this energy into the work to continue the improvements when people got back into  their ‘day jobs’. I was concerned because I thought it would be difficult and undesirable for a single individual to sustain work on any improvement  item, so  I suggested that groups of between 3 and 5 form around each of the most popular improvement items that we dot voted on and prioritised by the number of votes.

Yet, despite the groups forming, the improvement work – even just meeting to explore questions that could yield greater understanding – still took time to get off the ground. In one case we didn’t even get to have the weekly reviews until the very last one, where it then turned out that there had been a lot of activity that had happened to move the improvements forward!

Persistence is hugely important – at one point, only two out of the five members of one working group turned up to have their conversation. I was so glad they persisted – because what they discovered helped attract greater interest in that improvement and more people joined later.

There is a need!

In my experiment, I worked with over 80 people in total – some more closely than others. Most had experienced some kind of ‘injection’ consultancy and most had generally a negative view of this model of consultants coming in – usually to coach or work with a team in Scrum/Kanban or something packaged – disrupting how people are working and then leaving after a few weeks or months. Most often, people shared that they just went back to how they worked – a bit more disillusioned.

The management in the various groups also generally felt they got less valuable outcomes from these engagements for the amount of money and time invested and disruption that everyone endured.

Almost universally, participants welcomed help and support to help them to focus on their improvements and explore different ideas and experiences to help them work on the items.

I believe there is a need because of a fundamental problem that many organisations have. Here are what I believe are the crux of the problem:

  • There are always things to be improved and some of them are critical.
    Each group averaged 26-35 things they would like to improve. Some of these were pretty big things –  like ‘getting more customers’ and  ‘feeling more appreciated for my work’.
  • Improvements take time and effort.
    During the experiment, most of what people shared were symptoms and therefore needed deeper exploration to understand, diagnose and find solutions for. It took time to get people together, time to explore the questions and sift through data. Most of this time was ‘stolen’ from the other time that people are normally busy.
  • There is a general lack of facilitation skills in companies.
    The biggest discovery for me – a huge proponent of self organisation – was that empowerment with permission is not enough for people to self organise. To do it effectively and to enjoy it requires supporting that empowerment with facilitation skills. If self organisation means everyone having pointless meetings that go on and on with no measurable outcome, then it is little wonder that groups would rather be told what to do than be more autonomous. My belief now is that everyone should have basic facilitation skills as a fundamental requirement to work with others. Basic techniques to get a group together with clearly articulated purpose, a framework to explore the purpose and means to converge the conversation into summaries, clear next steps and action.
  • The people who can best explore the problems that need improvement are hardly ever invited to do so.
    This is perhaps one of the biggest aspects of the problem that I observed. The experiment was based entirely on making an invitation -a request – for which there were no consequences for not accepting. Even with the invitation made, I got regular feedback about the fear of it not being genuine or genuinely supported by management. I found myself having to reiterate and reinforce the open-heartedness of the invitation often.

The core need that I identified and validated is that people involved in the improvement work need help, access to expertise and support at a pace that suits them. Most importantly, I discovered that there is a distinction to the way the help must be presented – friendly, empathic partnership is preferable to pushing knowledge or being an aloof teacher/trainer/’guru’.

What Next?

So, I have data, many mostly satisfied experiment participants, plenty of learning, great ideas and some validated conclusions. What next?

I am working on finalising the details of a new service to meet this need that I have identified and validated and I will be sharing it soon. I would really love your input when I have something to share.

If you would like to learn more about the smaller details of the experiment or are thinking of running something similar, consider booking a free slot on my new soHelpfulMe page and I would happily spill the beans about how it worked, the gotchas, what I would do differently and even share some of the feedback – anonymously , of course. 

For all other comments – please use the commenting system or tweet me @mhsutton. Please consider sharing this post. Thanks.

5 Recent Things I am Learning from My Remote #Coaching Experiment

I have spent the last couple of weeks on the road – travelling to spend two days each with two of the five organisations that are participating in my remote coaching experiment. The time I have spent face to face with these wonderful people has been really humbling and continue to help me validate the reasons that I launched the experiment in the first place. I am learning some really important lessons that will help me shape a possible service and I’d like to share them with you.

#1. It doesn’t really matter where you start the conversation

I once was asked “should we focus on problems or improvement?”. This experiment is teaching me that – if you are interested in a sustainable effective improvement – you cannot seriously explore improvements without really understanding what you are making better i.e. the less effective starting point or problem.

I have experimented with being Problem Focused with some participants in some cases and Solution Focused with others – to get some anecdotal evidence of what is more effective. So far, I think both are equally effective. But hugely dependent on how the conversation is facilitated and also the openness and empathy in the groups.

Ultimately I am learning that you start where you feel most comfortable and what really matters is the commitment to continue the conversation.

#2. People have day jobs, respect that

Every ‘Improvement Discovery’ session I have facilitated emphasises that everyone  has day jobs that affect their bandwidth to work on the things we want to improve. 

I say this to help set expectations of the level of involvement – at various times – that people may experience from themselves and others. 

Despite knowing this in my core, I sometimes find that I feel deeply frustrated when I cannot see any evidence of progress on the items that people signed up to. I wonder to myself:

Don’t they care enough about this problem to drop everything and fix it?
Don’t they respect me enough to do what they committed to?

Then I catch myself and remember that they have day jobs and whilst this is important for them – because they said it was – they also may be having a tough time trying to balance both commitments. Immediately this triggers an empathic response. How can I help them find the time to make the thing they want better, happen?

#3. Being remote requires emotional control

One of the more difficult things that I am experiencing is that, because I’m remote and not physically around the organisation and people, I am less able to easily access the non-verbal communication that is abundant with co-located group. I struggle to sense what is keeping people busy or what is distracting them.

I react in various emotional ways to this lack of input. First I may feel angry – that they are not ‘keeping up their side of the bargain’.
I may also feel unappreciated because ‘don’t they know I am sitting here waiting for them to pull my help’.

My main learning here is to come back to the context – and this is why it is really important to have context – so that I know that this is not personal. I am also learning that recognising that I have a feedback gap is very important. It invites me to share what I am feeling with the group and invite help to address the feedback gap.

#4. Getting Invited is harder than simply barging in

The core of my approach is that people themselves address the exploration of the improvement they seek. We find what we want to improve, prioritise them and then form working groups around each one to frame, explore and discover what concrete actions can be taken to make the improvement. I can facilitate, guide, collaborate, teach, coach and listen – or not –  to the extent that they need me to – but only if I am invited to do so. I call this ‘pull’. This is different from ‘push’ – which is more about me interrupting people – remember they have day jobs – imposing what I think they need. The coaching approach requires that participants understand this is the offer and are comfortable with pulling my involvement.

For the first bit – understanding the offer – I am learning that I need to be more explicit that I am available to be invited and this is really the main way I get involved and being clear about how they can make the invitation – scheduling a meeting, chatting on IM etc.

For the second bit – people feeling comfortable – I am learning  that people find it hard to pull even when they are clear that is the way to get my help. My understanding of why this is the case is evolving but so far being ‘too busy’ keeps coming up as a primary reason.

#5. A month is not very long to change everything

All the groups I am working with have 30+ members and cover almost the entirety of the functions to get stuff out of the door.

You can imagine that so many people have many things they want to improve. Some of these things are cross functional like ‘understanding of the value of what we are building’, others are specific to functions like ‘we need to increase database unit test automation’.

This experiment is 30 days long and is designed almost exclusively for my learning. During this time I want to learn what works and what sucks about working remotely – both for me and my clients. The only way I can really learn is by doing it. So the doing is  necessary but kind of no the aim. That said, once you ask people what they want to improve you better damn well have a plan to help them get those improvements.

So I am learning to be clearer that their journey of continuous improvement has no end date. It is neither constrained by time nor space, but simply by their commitment to work towards better versions of themselves. I simply jump off that line in 30 days as they continue.

Please share your experiences of working remotely in a coaching role or as someone working with a remote coach – I can use all the learnings I can get!

If you are interested in keeping up to date with what I am learning in this experiment – please consider signing up to my email list – I won’t ever spam, sell, share or otherwise pimp you details. Also consider following me on Twitter.


Featured Image By: squidishCC BY 2.0

Early lessons from my ’30 days of free #remote #agile #coaching’ experiment

By: Shardayyy - CC BY 2.0
By: Shardayyy – CC BY 2.0

In late December, I announced a really juicy offer of free remote agile coaching for 30 days for organisations willing to help me learn how remote coaching might work and how effective it could be.

It is now late January and I finally got my 5 lucky volunteers from a total set of 11 respondents. I fully intend to share the names of the lucky 5 once they agree that I can do so and also as part of a series of case studies.

Here are some early lessons that I would like to share about offering something that otherwise would be hugely expensive for no financial cost:

Cost is a barrier

Almost all the respondents said that cost was a barrier to them getting help  – let alone ongoing help. Trying to justify the cost made having the conversation with their management and other parts of the organisation harder!

Just because it is free doesn’t mean it is attractive

One respondent was pretty keen and was really geared up, but when they brought the offer to their management – they weren’t so supportive. ‘We are hiring an agile coach next month, why do we need a free one?’. The value of an objective expert who can help call out ineffective behaviour and help focus everyone’s attention on finding more effective behaviour is understated until people try it and see transformational results.

Free does not mean fast

I believe that agile businesses are inherently fast responders. Their ability to sense opportunity and to respond – even if that response is a placeholder for a future conversation – is essential. This  – in my opinion – is one of the observable behaviours of an agile person/team/business.

My lesson is a little skewered by Christmas and New Year – but not so much that I could not discern that all but two of my respondents was really fast off the bat. From an early conversation to explore the nitty gritty of the offer to connecting with their CxOs to schedule a go-ahead conversation took all of a week. On the other hand – most others were taking a week or two to even just respond to my reply!

I’m sure they all have great reasons,  but assuming that your free offer  – however good it might be – will spark immediate response is perhaps ill-advised.

If I was to do this again, I would not pick the holiday season and I would set an offer period – for no other reason than communicate my sense of urgency.

The newbies are fresh enough to care

Almost all 11 respondents to my offer had been in their roles for less than 1 year. This invites me to explore why these particular people chose to act.

Perhaps they are still fearless and optimistic about their organisations’ journey of continuous improvement.

Perhaps they  still enjoy the support of their management in their drive to help their organisations become better.

In my experience of over 100 teams and over a thousand people, the new people in the organisation hold huge unsullied hope and their employers and colleagues best learn how to make the best of that temporary state of non-corruption.

Ask a question, share a thought

If you have any questions about my offer and how it is working out – please drop me a comment below, contact me on Twitter or email me. I’d love to learn and share.

At this point I really want to say a massive thank you to all those who shared my tweets and the link to the original post to their networks. I can’t thank you all enough. If you are ever in Spain… beers!!