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.

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

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!!

Gifts in unlikely places.

Finding the right gift is a pain – it shouldn’t be, but it is. My friend Søren has just launched a new product – Giftri.com. It is a clever and useful little app that helps you give and receive the right gifts. 

We were chatting about the challenges of launching a product and getting people to visit the site and use it and be wowed by its value. I prefer thinking of it like this (people and value vs traffic). I asked Søren what he had tried to get people to the site.

We’ve tried lots of things, Google ads, Facebook ads, joining forums and trying to promote it in conversation. We even used 3rd party ad sharing networks – which had lots of poor quality traffic. We also monitored tweets from people asking about what gifts to get and politely suggested using our service.

“The single, most effective thing we did”

Despite the investment in advertising on Google and Facebook and all the effort in mining social media –  lots of people came to the site, but  the conversion to using the site and seeing the recommendations was still very low.

What worked for them was simple. Søren says:

But you know what really worked for us? The single, most effective thing we did that brought the most people who used the site, checked out the recommendations and ultimately bought something from our partner?  I commented on a thread on reddit by a guy who was concerned about what to get his family for Christmas!

I was very surprised! This single thing whilst not generated lots of page visits, generated the most valuable visits. Maybe I’m reading more into this, but a profound lesson was reinforced for me by Søren’s experience. – understand the problem people have and how (and where) they express it.


People have needs and favorite places to express them

I was really inspired by a tweet by my friend @paulKlipp:


‘People have needs’ and this is fundamentally true. Not meeting those needs can be a problem, it seems to me that needs also have channels where they are most effectively expressed. For any entrepreneur trying to understand problems in order to find a product/market, finding places where people express their needs is almost as crucial as the need itself.

The work in understanding where needs are expressed pays huge dividends. You find somewhere to engage with your audience and listen to their needs and demonstrate empathy and as you strive to solve them, you find a willing community to help you test your ideas.

As I work on building my app – Hashies – focused on helping communities have powerful conversations on Twitter, I am discovering that my engagement with those channels is vital to understand their pain points. Participating in these communities is also exceptionally rewarding in terms of learning new domains. If you aren’t already participating in these – I encourage you to take a look. A great place to find a list of Twitter chats is TheChatDiary.com [update 04/June/2014: TheChatDiary.com link is no longer valid]

So, as you do market research for your startup or are engaged in customer development, it might be worth your while to seek out the channels people use to express their needs as well as the needs themselves.

What are your thoughts on needs and channels? I’d love to hear and share the most – and least – effective things you’ve done for Customer Developement. 


Want 30 days of free #agile #coaching for your team? Help me on my project and it's yours. Pls Share.

A little about me?

I’m Mike Sutton – a deeply experienced agile coach with a background in development. I have built products, led teams and small companies, consulted with some of the biggest enterprises and helped  dozens of  teams and hundreds of  people to work more effectively. I tend to focus more on people and outcomes than on process and output and seek to leave places more joyful than I found them. Check me out on LinkedIn to find out who I’ve worked with or book a conversation with me  and I’d be happy to answer any questions you have.

I need your help

After over seven years of coaching enterprises of all sizes – usually on site for periods ranging from a few weeks to many months – I have become convinced that this is not the most effective model to help people genuinely learn and make sustainable positive changes to how they work and think about work.

Whether you are a big 20,000+ employee organisation or a small ten person team – I don’t believe this model of concentrated transformation or ‘shock’ coaching actually helps deliver sustained positive outcomes.

Here are 5 of the biggest reasons I don’t believe this is a model for sustained change:

  1. Cost: hiring a consultant coach is expensive – sometimes very expensive. It can run into tens of thousands of dollars for just one coach. When you multiply this by a few coaches on a large ‘transformation’, it gets crazy costly.
  2. Negatively disruptive : the cost also drives an unhealthy level of disruption. The unspoken sentiment is ‘Mike is here, the meter is running, drop everything now to get his help’. This has the effect of creating a pressure cooker situation that hardly encourages the learning that we want.
  3. Learning is rushed –  most enterprises I have worked with seem to consider a transformation to be a ‘project’. They’ll hire a coach and once the agreed period has passed, they will be ‘agile’. This is an unreasonable approach. The essential elements of making small changes, reflecting on the results, adjusting the next set of experiments all take time – they cannot be rushed. But because the meter is running and the costs are high, the journey is rushed and often abandoned because the learning has not been given a chance to stick.
  4. It wastes my time and your money: there are times when a coach must do nothing. Times when the organisation must do its own heavy lifting. Most organisations I have coached have expected me to still be on site even when it is counter productive to their learning and erodes their ability to stand on their own.
  5. Poor ongoing support: I see many companies that paid money to have their employees trained and certified. Some might even have hired a coach like me on site to do some work. But once the training is over and the coaches leaves,  their Scrum Masters, Product Owners, developers and even management are left with little or no ongoing support. It soon returns to business as usual because there is no one to help them stay focused or to whom they can turn for help with the next steps – at least not without another large cost. Some might create an internal coach role to keep improvements going – but in my experience the key ingredient of objectivity and honesty often get lost over time because of internal politics and familiarity.

I need your help to make this better.

I’m working on a project to help and support people in maintaining a sustainable pace of continuous improvement and learning. To do this,  first I need to really understand the problems facing people who are trying to apply an agile approach with very little support. I want to understand what the barriers to support are and experiment with ways to remove them.

My offer to you

If any of the following apply to you:

I am in management struggling to understand how agile should be working for me and my organisation, my role in it and what should I be doing next

I am in a team that is seeking ways to improve our outcomes and how we collaborate and learn;

I am a Scrum Master or Product Owner feeling isolated, unsupported and outnumbered;

My organisation claims they are doing Scrum or are agile – but it’s all wrong and very frustrating. We could do with some help.

I am a C-Level executive with people in my organisation that fit the above and I want to help make it better.

Then I would love your help on my project.

I am offering to personally coach five lucky groups remotely  free of charge for 30 days.

Each group will enjoy great benefits including having:

30 days of remote access coaching available to anyone in your organisation. This could be ongoing coaching of Scrum masters as they perform an incredibly difficult role or mentoring Product Owners in keeping a vision shared and relevant and maintaining a healthy backlog. It could be starting from scratch with setting a strategic direction with the inclusion of your entire organisation or helping established teams get even better.

A skilled facilitator  – to help you and your organisation rediscover how to collaborate transparently and effectively so that you can finally start to address all those issues that affect you all.

An untainted observer – to help you with my objective observations untainted by any political influence.

An improvement partner – to help work through those tough problems and help you find your own way through them. From vision to delivery and everything in between.

Access to lots of games, practices and experience –  to help your teams improve their capability to reflect, experiment and collaborate and to deliver product and learning more sustainably.

Help to start and grow your communities of practice  – to help sustain an almost permanent and continuous state of learning.

Support when you need it – it is not in the interest of self-sustainability that a coach is there for everything you do – this is a journey where  you will ultimately outgrow a coach. But at every step where you falter, you will have my experience, expertise and network  to overcome it.

What’s the catch?

I am usually paid thousands of pounds/dollars to offer my expertise and experience to help teams and organisations improve. I’m making this offer absolutely free of charge – gratis!

While I will not charge you for my remote services, this offer is not free – I am offering this in exchange for learning!

I want to learn how the remote coaching experience works for you, specifically:

  1. To what extent does having unrestricted remote access to independent and experienced expert improve the outcomes for agile teams and their management?
  2. How much expert access is “just right” to keep continuous improvement at its highest sustainable pace?
  3. What is the most effective kind of access and for what kind of situations?
  4. Can the business value of remote strategic coaching be measured?
  5. If, given affordable access and no-pressure, will the individuals in an organisation use the help that is offered? What will it take for the organisation to support it?

That’s it. I coach you remotely for free , you and your organisation improve and have a great basis for continued improvement and I get to learn to what extent this can be done remotely. Want free agile coaching for 30 days? Sign up now.

How it works

  1. If I haven’t worked with your group for 6 months or more, we are best to start with 2 days on site where I meet your group –  the teams and individuals – and we work together on what we want out of this. We’ll come up with goals and a near term starting plan to reach them. We’ll setup a review cadence and start working on the items on the plan.
    This on-site time will be expenses only – so you cover the flight, accommodation and meals. I won’t charge you for my time.
  2. After the 2 days on-site, I leave and we continue the work on the plan remotely  – adjusting it as we learn more. We will collaborate using every remote channel available to us – video, screen-sharing, email and phone calls – perhaps even an interactive whiteboard!
  3. After 30 days, we end the partnership happy, we would both have learnt a lot and have actionable data to fuel improvement.

Does this sound doable for your organisation? Let’s try it together..

My ideal group

  • Are based within 7 hours of GMT+1  –  so  Europe, east coast USA, middle East and Africa are all in!
  • Are not larger than 400 employees. For huge companies, this refers only to the size of the group that will be using my offer.
  • Are building any product – software or otherwise.
  • Are in whatever stage of adopting an agile approach.
  • Are committed to improvement and are open-minded enough to try this.

Does this sound like you? I need just 5 – be one of them, sign up now.

What you need to do now

Places are limited. Once I find 5 groups willing to help with this, the offer will close and you will have missed the opportunity. 

If you feel this opportunity would suit you and your organisation and you are willing to help me learn – get in touch now – there is not a minute to lose.

Finally , as a personal favour to me and your contacts – please share this.

Why @whatsapp just became one of my favourite companies and I don't even use their software.


Image courtesy of Whatsapp

I’m getting old.

I don’t hanker after gadgets as much as I used to and I’m not connected to the latest app fads. Plus I wear crocs.

But I read this blog post from the founders of WhatsApp –  a mobile app that lets you doing instant message to anyone in the world for free. As apps go – it is not very exciting for me. I’ve written a few myself and to be fair that space is very crowded. Yet they are loved by their users (my daughters and my sister at least) because they have a great product that they love and it shows.

What made me so totally love this company though is not its product or it huge user base but a glimpse into the fabric of the character of the company.

They don’t sell ads because for the same reasons that I will never sell ads on any application that I build. I especially love them because they were gifted with the ability to articulate their reasons so eloquently.

I’ve never completely understood advertising because fundamentally I think people search for what they need. So really what we could do with is better searching – easier ways to pull and not more places to have things pushed at one. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of advertising is that users become the product – eyeballs to be bought, sold and ad-sensed. That really grates me.

Advertising and the satellite industries around it seem to run the world. I wonder how it might change.

So – thank you Whatsapp – from one maker to another – keeping fighting the good fight and doing good work.