Innovate Like a Fish Bowl

Culture Must be Grown, Like Bacteria and Fish

Innovation culture as a competitive advantage isn’t just hard to achieve, it seems most companies don’t even begin to process the multidimensional, biological, complexity of a superorganism in the act of creation.

It’s no wonder new ideas are often rejected by mainstream science. We don’t always have a proper metaphor to describe the phenomena we are experiencing. Complexity’s like that. Network science doesn’t translate easily to everyday life. So we need a stepping stone […]

Stacy Hale via Network Science Needs a Metaphor


I agree.  Network thinking as well as complex adaptive systems design needs metaphors and analogues or the topic is near in approachable.  Of course, the best metaphors in human communication are always found in the stories we tell.

Once upon a time…

My wife and I started a dog rescue a few years back.  It would be an understatement to say that we are animal lovers. So we have a four-legged family member or two now that are ours simply because they were “unadoptable”.  We also took two Love Birds a few months back. This weekend, in true adopt-don’t-shop fashion, we added a new pair of lives to our family: two African Dwarf Frogs.

I’d been asking my wife to keep an eye out for aquariums – even a cracked one – being given away so that I could use it for a mini-greenhouse experiment.  The exchange went like this:

Her: “Honey, did you still want an aquarium?”

Me: “Definitely – what’s living in it?” Half joking…

Her: “Two frogs, do you want to rescue a pair of frogs?”

Me: “Absolutely, I’ve always wanted a frog.”

So I picked them up Saturday, receiving the smaller tank the frogs came in, a larger tank that had been emptied, food, and the water treatment drops.

Stay with me here.

Attempting to sort out how to prepare the larger tank without killing my new frogs, I came across a concept completely new to me – Tank Cycling. Thus the title of this post – “Innovate Like a Fish Bowl” – because, as I researched what Tank Cycling was and why it would be so important to me as a new Frog-Rescuer, I couldn’t help but get excited.

Tank Cycling is the perfect metaphor for how to design for emergence.  Reductionist thinking – the way a child would see an aquarium – views a finite number of variables in isolation and attempts to optimize each one:

  • Do too many or too few fish?
  • Do I have enough water in the tank or do I need more?
  • Am I feeding them the right amount?

Of course, the correlation to how most companies fail to “drive” innovation, especially in tech, has been the topic of most of this blog as a furious and rebellious rejection of “the iron triangle”:

  • Do I have enough resources?
  • Do I have enough time?
  • Am I controlling scope?

We could list 10 more variables, or 30 more, that companies try to tweak in their reductionist view of the for-profit superorganism. We can find examples for each one of why they ought not be maximized in isolation.  It can be disastrous at scale, but in aggregate it results in the mediocrity we have come to expect from most large companies.

“What kind of mindset should we have when looking for causality in networks? A reductionist one looks at pieces and not wholes. […] The more interconnected our world, the more reductionism self-inflicts problems, and the more we need to see in networks.”

via The Dao of Emergence

In reality, it isn’t sufficient for me to say “Innovate in a fish bowl” though, is it?  The metaphor I promised is “Innovation is born in a healthy aquarium.”

Innovation Ecology

So when I say that a company is a complex system that must be designed to promote emergence, where adaptive leadership (creativity, innovation, disruption) is an organic process that “happens to” and “happens with” the system as a whole, I am arguing for a model of understanding that move away from this: aquarium = fish + water + food.  Instead, you must optimize the system as a whole (or you will kill your fish) because an aquarium is a walled-off ecosystem full of biological processes that must be maintained in inter-relationship as a complex system.

In other words, an aquarium must be “grown” for fish and not “filled” with fish.  Just look at this complexity thinking:

“Cycling the tank” means that you are establishing a bacteria bed in your biological filter to remove the toxins that the fish’s metabolism creates. There are right and wrong ways to do this, and several things you can do to slow this process (which you don’t want to do). There are two steps to cycling, but you don’t have to do anything special for either of them. First, your filter will grow a culture of bacteria that digest ammonia and turn it into Nitrite (which is more toxic than the ammonia in hard water or water with a higher pH), then your filter produces bacteria that digest Nitrite and turn it into relatively harmless Nitrate. However, Nitrate will contribute to loss of appetite and stress in your fish, as well as contributing to algae growth, so it is important to do regular small water changes to keep your tank in best condition. Read more on water changes while the tank is cycling.


If you love this metaphor as much as I do, seriously go read the entire site and maybe grow an aquarium of your own.  In the meanwhile, let’s get back to the “problem” of innovation.  Most companies approach product development, strategy, marketing, innovation all in a vacuum.  The attempt to compete with startups and tech companies that have grown up around disruptive technology leads to reductionist, simplistic changes that make for a bigger or more crowded fish tank with fish of increasingly mediocre fish health.

This is fundamental to a western view of causality.  Artificially adding in a process, tool, or “acquiring” talent is like ignoring the “biological filter” that underlies creativity.  Lately it has been called “culture” resulting in a gaming console or beer kegs in companies that are organized to kill the tension you see that organically derives creativity.  Like paying for more ads on your social networks and expecting virality or adding more people to your own social network without investing in relationships – the value that emerges is phenotypical, an outcome of complex biological processes.

So let’s say that you actually want to not only enjoy the beauty of some exotic fish in your own home, but even hope they’ll breed – tantamount to having tech unicorns who will innovate enough on your behalf to disrupt your industry.  The systems view of an aquarium relies on the on the organic growth of a biological filter that will stabilize the environment – multiple cultures of bacteria with different but complimentary jobs must arise to support the presence of a community of fish – and all you can do is measure outputs.

Here is where the real danger occurs.  Most organizations, like the firsttankguide author warns against, think that measuring something must mean it should be optimized, even artificially.  Companies keep dumping chemicals into the water, never creating a sustainable ecosystem.  The fish (creative information workers like designers and developers and content writers) lose their appetite, get sick, and die, certainly prior to procreating.  But that’s okay, there are just so many “fish in the sea”!  Let’s just keep stuffing chemicals and new fish and hope that magic will happen eventually!

It won’t.  There is no magic.  Only death, filth, and decay.

So if you want to “get in on” AI or IoT or Augmented Reality as a company that has built itself on factory-age management practices, prepare to be disappointed unless you take a systems view of what is a truly a complex biological process – a network-become-superorganism.  Innovation is an emergent property of a healthy system of creators, stop treating it the way a child understands a gold fish in a bowl.

Entrepreneurial Product Ownership

As a Product Owner, is “entrepreneurial” or “innovative” in your job description?  Yeah, I thought so. But what does that even mean?

As I’ve mentioned before, the ability to ensure work is meaningful to the user-in-pain and the customer paying to resolve that pain (occasionally but not always the same person) is super important to the health and motivation of the engineers. The shorter the time between empathy and resolution, the more meaningful the work, the more likely the direct correlation with revenue, and the safer the jobs and projects of the engineers become.

The big “evil” business “side” in a large company doesn’t need any of that in order to maintain risk aversion and product agility. Cancelling a three year project before a customer saw it because a better project was two years in WAS their agility.

Congratulations on your agile transformation, but when you said “agile” you really meant lean concepts like “small batching” and “level-loading” and “systems thinking”. As a Product Owner, you must obtain a clear understanding around lean startup principles. That may shock you. Alas, the moment your team became an agile team, you became a new venture.

At scale, as a Product Owner overseeing delivery of your backlog, it is of tantamount necessity that you strengthen your relationship with your Product Manager. To the extent the Product Manager handles budget approval from the C-Suite on your behalf and builds up buy-in from your top customers, treat them like a venture capitalist with many connections in the VC/Angel community – and this is your first company. The expected return is 10X due to the extra risk. Many of them are having to let go against their will and trust that you know what you’re doing.

Within this context that you bear on your shoulders, the burden-of-proof that the budget can be trusted to the agile engines of production, you now have to proactively validate all learning about three things:

Product risk – The right thing was built to solve the pain of a large (enough) but narrowly (enough) focused group.

Market risk – The ability to build and continuously improve the viability of your product’s business model.

Customer risk – The ability to get the solution into the hands of the customer.

You are the single point of failure for information flow about your product backlog.

Project risk, as you once knew it, is gone. In fact, waterfall was the good ol’ days for the free riders and career passive observers among us. That was part of a bubble in the economy. SO long-lived that it caused no pain to investors, so you never heard it called a bubble. But the era of software-in-itself as a competitive advantage is gone. The fat shall be trimmed.

So no, you don’t have a deadline to track against but you do have the angel investments from your Product Manager(s). Also, you don’t really have “technical risk” anymore right? Come on, there isn’t much that you can’t build because most of us aren’t so imaginative that our requirements are science fiction. The risk that your estimates were wrong is so tertiary that some groups do away with it entirely.

No no no, YOU, my Product Owner friend, risk the loss of intrapreneurial “investor” confidence… the confidence that you know what you’re doing, mostly. Can good forecasting and transparency help? Sometimes. Unfortunately, some of us get promoted from T-Ball to the Majors with no notice that it even happened. We need a pocket-MBA and a time machine to make the new demands reasonable.

What can you do?

OWN your own destiny. The path to autonomy, mastery, and purpose is a purposeful pursuit of excellence in your craft.  If you don’t love agile, you may start to. If your boss hates agile, you’ll win her over. But it’s on you to make it happen. 

There are three “steps” to excellence in Product Ownership. Repeating these steps will take your abilities to the next level.

Step One: Establish Communication and Discovery Ceremonies

Agile transformations seem to fizzle at your level (the Product Owner). That’s because the Scrum ceremonies of the builders “under” you are well-established and grow from the ground up. They have become so commonplace that refusing the development team’s desire for a Sprint Retro seems just silly. The ceremonies that keep the team moving are established – the ceremonies you hold with your stakeholders, not so much. Without knowing the stakeholders and the meetings you already have with them, giving specifics here is hard. But – for whatever problem you’re having, looking outside your company. There is a vendor in the services industry that overcomes your challenge as a full-time business model. Prioritizing a longer term roadmap, creative brainstorming sessions, Lean UX workshops, Lean StartUp coaching – large companies have had the problems you’re facing for a long time. Look for a consultant, google what they offer, read blog posts, attend MeetUps. They are excited to talk about what they do. They know that they have to “out teach the competition” to be seen as the expert. Reach out to me for specifics. At the end of the day, borrow those workshop tactics and meeting agendas, get buy-in from each stakeholder, then establish a cadence for those activities.

Step Two: Pursue Cross-Functional Team(membership)

Never stop learning. Create a plan. Get a mentor or friend to share it with and if possible include it in your check-ins with your manager. As a Product Owner, you are the conduit between nearly every other function. Because the “development side” has begun fighting toward cross-functional teams, it’s critical you develop cross-functional communication skills. A simple way to get started is to ask people what they think works best about their jobs. An even more robust strategy is to list out all the job titles of the people you must successfully communicate with, check online for a job description, pick a skill or requirement and prioritize a backlog skills to learn. Should you master photoshop? No. But a few YouTube tutorials as you play with GimpShop (a free alternative) will be a real eye-opener. Remember this isn’t about becoming a jack-of-all-trades, this about mastery and excellence in your product innovation and delivery ownership role. Sharpening your ability to translate between specialists and clarify your intentions about prioritized effort IS your specialty.

Step Three: Define The Art and Science of Prioritization

I’m writing about this quite a bit else where. Check my blog posts, follow any links I gave and come up with your approach. If you need more specific answers, reach out to me.

The Virtue of Sincere Honesty

This is part of a series on the virtues of excellent Product Ownership.

The Virtue: Sincere Honesty

Sincerity – the quality of being free from pretense, deceit, or hypocrisy.

As a Product Owner, you are the conduit of an immense amount of information. You are the tip of the spear for what gets built next, which requires you to establish – with your stakeholders, peers, customers, users, and cross-functional development team members – that you can be trusted. In most organizations that I have spoken with, the Product Owner is the single point of failure for information symmetry. Does the Product Manager know what the ScrumMaster knows? Does the UX designer know what the Social Listening Analyst knows? Does the development team know what the customer knows? The duty to prioritize the backlog is derivative. The core purpose of Product Ownership is to prioritize the flow of information.

This isn’t about keeping stories straight or “transparency” and it definitely has (almost) nothing to do with deadlines. Your Product Manager or equivalent stakeholder must trust that you prioritized the right things to build or you’ll lose their “investor confidence.” The customer must trust that you are giving them their money’s worth. The developer must trust that you know the user and their needs and have told them the right thing to build.

So this is about the visibility of information, and your role in promoting the most important insights for each party.

The vice of deficiency is not “lack of documentation” any more than bad product performance is due to lack of velocity. There are no documentation or utilization problems, only communication and engagement problems. So the real deficiency is lack of effective communication of ideas. When you are apathetic but your words scream “ASAP!” that’s hypocrisy and people know it.

The vice of excessive “honesty” is what most people do in the name of transparency: Over-supply of data with no context or prioritization. Just like the overwhelming number of things that you could build make prioritization the cornerstone of managing the backlog, the overwhelming amount of information that could flow through you requires prioritization of what you communicate.

The virtue, in between data-forwarding without context and insincere platitudes of precision and urgency, is sincere honesty – providing the information that you believe is most important to the success of everyone involved. Whatever tool or process you need, be authentic, be genuine, and do your best.

The Lost Product Owner

The Lost Product Owner

At scale, the “Hero-Scrum” paradigm falls apart.  A product becomes too large for one team, then the number of teams becomes to large for the Product Owner & CEO model to work.  A company working toward agile transformation could slowly restructure toward mini-CEOs; but the truth is, the organizational switching costs are too high to make this a realistic option.  Be honest – those that own the customer relationships and those that own the technical communication are, respectively, too specialized – and great at their jobs – to start mashing them together as peers.

That said, I see a clear skew in agile transformation consulting and especially entry-level Scrum training toward protecting the team against the more powerful Product Owner.  While this may be a tactical prejudice when the role is played by your boss, my first-hand experience has been the opposite.  In scaled transformations, the more likely scenario is that Business Analysts,  Project Managers, Jr. Product Managers, Quality Assurance Analysts, or Support Engineers of the organization are asked to rise to the occasion and somehow, instantly and powerfully, lead a team to greater autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

{inspirational anthem plays in here}

Let’s be real.

The two fundamental hero images intrinsic in most Scrum courses – the ever-vigilant, time-protective ScrumMaster and available-part-time, drunk-with-power Product Owner – is meaningless in the more complex patterns of large organizations.

After studying LESS, SAFe, and Lean Enterprise theory, while speaking to representatives or directly working with several dozen organizations, it is clear that there are enough job title “Product Owners” that more attention to the profession (in separate consideration from the role) is a worthwhile pursuit.

Although I initially wanted to pursue the shock value of entitling my first book AGILE IS DEAD: HOW TO GET WHAT YOU MEANT YOU WANTED – it is plain to me that the audience for that book is too poorly defined, the pain is therefore not shared by the entire audience, and the text would be a fantastic (agile) train wreck.

Instead, I can see there is a compelling need to teach the lessons many of us learn the hard way then become agile coaches and lose touch with.  There is a very large guild of professional Product Owners that need hands-on tactics for not only how but why specific practices work well in an agile, lean, scrum setting (as part of a larger enterprise).  Amazingly, many of the hardest questions for running agile trains have analogs with well-established practices in professions and industries so antithetical to innovative software development that we all collectively forgot to look (and our executives understandably would never pay the handful of thought leaders who were looking to come give us a PhD in the topic).

So be on the lookout for the table of contents, the rough-draft blog posts, and the invites to MeetUps and workshops.  I’d love to hear from you on the topic in advance of those things – so reach out to me at

Photo via Jaxon Stevens

Fine, I’ll Do It Myself

I’m going to launch a product.  I’m going to start a company.  I’m an entrepreneur now. 

I see clearly that grabbing my best intellectual ally(s) and applying the combined, multifaceted, full-stack, full-spectrum brilliance we have is far more powerful than huge enterprises can compete with.  They are weighed down.  They can’t stop siloing.  They have enough money to survive their blunders for decades – that’s the only advantage they have.

With the inspiration of Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work! behind me, I will show anyone willing to listen exactly how I progress.  By doing so, I hope every potential user can be involved in the process, not just consume the product.

I’m not worried about having my idea stolen.  I care about it because it solves a pain I have and you might have it too.  I am building it based on selfishness, love, and empathy. 

“The special challenge of being a startup is the near impossibility of having your idea, company, or product be noticed by anyone, let alone a competitor.” 

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

If you want in, Tweet with the mention @keenerstrategy and #ShareLighter to send me questions, requests, or ideas.

Image via Kaique Rocha

You Look Dumb – 5 Mobile Marketing Mistakes

Your smart presence looks pretty dumb.

Welcome to the “smart” era – smart phones, smart cars, and smart homes are finally here! You can officially go to display rooms in your local appliance store instead of booking a trip to Orlando to see the home of “the future”.  In our smart era, a fair percentage of the population now carries supercomputers in our pockets with computing power that would have filled a warehouse even in science fiction during the baby boom.

Unfortunately, as “smart” as all this technology should be in your business, I’ve noticed your company looks pretty “dumb” because things are getting done exactly the way they were before, but now on a smaller screen!   As much as technophiles may blame late-adopters for not buying in to new devices and new apps, wake up – if you’re asking people to do the same old story, same old song and dance, but you’ve given them a more difficult form factor to do it on, they have no reason to adopt!

In that light, here are the 6 mobility mistakes you might be making RIGHT NOW that keep your mobile presence looking dumb where it ought to be smart:


#1 – You Encourage Channel Hopping

If your mobile marketing strategy has shifted consumers from one conversion funnel (web or brick) to another (apps) but hasn’t resulted in increased revenue, you’ve encouraged channel hopping.  This is a nightmare scenario that often pits employees of each channel against each other internally, fighting for additional budget, unable to fully justify forecasted ROI.  What happened? When you built your native app, the value created by your investment was captured 100% by your consumers!

This looks dumb to the smart consumer, because it is painfully obvious when the only difference between the native app and the responsive site is Touch ID. The choice between a link on the home screen versus a downloaded app comes down to space on the phone and speed of content loading.

The math for the mobile marketing individual is so simple that this mistake looks extra “dumb” to your boss. When traffic stays constant, but an additional channel is added, aggregate conversion across the channels must increase or else your funnels are just cannibalizing each other. That’s the ROI problem every mobile marketing initiative must overcome: when you invest $200k in mobile eCommerce and revenue stays constant, your consumers have captured all the value created. Sure, they may be happier. They might say “how convenient to have a desktop site AND an app for researching and executing my purchases!” Unfortunately, the return on your investment they capture doesn’t inherently result in more traffic, conversion, sales, or loyalty.

Admittedly, companies don’t make this mistake in a vacuum. They see traffic and sales moving from their desktop site to a new competitor’s mobile app – panic ensues – and they build an app of their own to stop the bleeding.

Remember, a bad bandage can be more dangerous than no treatment at all. The smart mobile marketing plan requires one of two approaches to respond to the threat of new entrants:

  1. Double-down on web. Yes, I make mobile apps and I’m saying its okay not to have a (native-coded) mobile app. If your plan for mobile is to reproduce a brochure, a paper form, or a website, don’t do it. Seriously, just throw your money in a pile and set it on fire like the Joker in Dark Knight.  If your site is working great but it isn’t a responsive site – start there. If it is outdated and anything is unintuitive, fix it. If you can’t create a unique relationship with consumers through your native mobile presence or capture the channel-specific value created, double-down on making your web presence best-in-class. This is Game Theory 101 – If you can’t win at both web and mobile, win big at one and forget the other.
  2. Create a unique market via app(s). If your audience is shrinking or your relationship with your consumers is suffering due to the mobile presence of a competitor and a truly unique relationship can be built through a mobile app – do it. This means your mobile presence needs to accomplish at least one of two things: augment the physical experience in ways a website can’t (to increase conversion) or create a completely new experience for a totally new audience (to increase aggregate traffic). Which path is right for you will depend on your market, products, and competitive landscape – so do your homework (and get a “tutor” as needed).


#2 – No Context Awareness

This is at the heart of what is so dumb about the way many companies establish a market presence on smart devices. If you have the opportunity to look “behind the curtain” you will notice this problem is not isolated, but occur on two fronts for that firm – externally in their consumer native apps and internally in their custom enterprise solutions. I’ve touched on specifics of Context Awareness several times. The differentiating power of a native app is in its intimate knowledge of where a user is, where they are going, and how they think. Segmented push messaging, one-tap deep-linking, and social API integration make the native app capable of a completely new relationship with your consumer. They are using a supercomputer that aggregates an unprecedented amount of personal information – all you have to do is offer a reward that justifies opting in.

Don’t fall prey to the opposite though – opting out should be easy, transparency on the use of private data is key, and you typically have one “strike” per consumer when it comes to keeping an app on their device. Whether it is download size, loading time, or privacy betrayal, as W.B. Yeats wrote, “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

Talk to technology professionals so you don’t plan your mobile presence in a vacuum. Geofences, iBeacons, IoT hardware, Photos integration, BLE, IoT, QR, wearables, and triggered messaging are all tools of the trade for ensuring you are able to create a unique proposition in a native app. Find the biggest impediment to solving your consumer’s pain in a way they will pay money for you to solve. Do NOT invest in native mobile unless the pocket supercomputer is going to augment physical realities with digital awesomeness.


#3 – No Business Intelligence

Ignorance is bliss. Unless you are driving a drastic paradigmatic shift in how you engage fresh generations of consumers through a new and constantly-evolving medium. In that scenario, ignorance is death – the death of any success you could have achieved.

“No Business Intelligence” is the bad-joke-telling best friend of “No Context Awareness” who crashes the wedding reception of your otherwise-integrated-marketing strategy. Where context awareness can drive new forms of engagement by proactively anticipating needs and supplying easy answers, business intelligence is a trailing ROI that takes effort to reap.   Business Intelligence is like planting a vegetable garden, as much as the visual presence of a lovely variety of plants may have delighted you on its own, you are leaving ROI out in the field until you harvest it. The same is true in mobile marketing. Until the big data you have created is collected, curated, and learned from in order to provide better plans, more focused campaigns, and the tightest possible updates to forecasts, you are creating white noise that should have been a joyful symphony.

At a minimum, it is essential you collect enough meaningful data to justify that you have accomplished your goals. The less you can prove directly that you have created new traffic, new converted sales, or new revenue sufficient to justify your investment in mobility, the more you need business intelligence to prove the indirect benefit provided to other channels. Better yet, even when new revenue is both directly and indirectly attributable to your mobile presence, you should drive BI insights like you are starting a company that will sell its knowledge. You may start by “selling” it internally to help justify you P&L, but don’t rule out the possibility external buyers may exist.


#4 – No Game Plan for IoT

If you don’t have concrete plans for drone technology or self-driven cars, I forgive you.  Not every industry will need direct adoption for these new technologies.  However, if you haven’t given serious thought to what your products and services can be in a connected world – called the “Internet of Things” – you are going to find yourself left behind over the next five years.

IoT is already within reach and less cost prohibitive than you may think. Connected power indicators, pipe flow sensors, BLE chipsets for detecting and communicating almost anything – they are all out there. Today what is being “tacked on” to products by R&D will tomorrow be a seamless experience seen as the baseline for market entry. You can afford not to be the first mover to the extent Silicon Valley startups are learning the hard lessons for us all today. That said, don’t get out of touch and don’t get left behind.

The Internet of most connected Things means at least one of two potential realities your business:

  1. Some products you currently market “dumb” will be expected to connect soon – a significant event in your product strategy because the value proposition of your physical Thing will not matter as much as how it connects to the app you provide with it. Think today what that app must be in order to compete. In fact, you should probably be building that app instead of reproducing your already-responsive web site. Then, more dauntingly, think about that product and app and their ability to connect with other Things that are connected in a way that creates a meaningful brand relationship.
  2. Widespread IoT products will further segment your target market and the position of players across your competitive landscape. If your product’s three year plan does not clearly indicate whether you will focus on selling non-connected versus connected variations or both, including the business case for how each will be priced and marketed, schedule meetings right now to drive those discussions.   The threat of new entrants on both sides will be higher as major players struggle to straddle the fence strategically.



#5 – You’re Stuck in Analysis Paralysis

Speaking of sitting permanently on the strategic fence, one of the dumbest responses to the introduction of smart technology is analysis paralysis. As my strategy professor emphasized while introducing Michael Porter, refusing to make a decision is your decision. That favorite Porter quote – “Strategy is the art of making choices”. In a Zero Sum game with multiple players and finite economic resources, strategy is the art of committing not only specific resources, but also commitments as a competitive position to the long-term continued investment of resources. By holding resources – even in the most uncertain times – you’ve made a decision to wait. The key to the good life, as Aristotle would say, is that the decision to wait, if virtuous, must intrinsically be deliberately decided.

If your organization is stuck in analysis paralysis, overwhelmed by the amount of aging IT investments behind you and the mountain of new (and sometimes unproven) technology ahead of you, a lack of action may preserve some capital in the short-term, but you are racking up immense opportunity cost and learning curve disadvantage. If your company has too many ideas and no commitment to a roadmap, here is how to get smart:

  1. LESS IS MORE – Don’t try to reinvent your entire IT and Marketing infrastructure in one big push. Define Lean Startup-style MVPs that give you a “quick win” (or a few) while getting you past the rookie mistakes, first-time jitters, and growing pains that are inevitable out of the gate.
  2. SOLVE REAL PAINS – Mobile for the sake of mobile fails the stakeholder, the end user, and leaves a bad taste in the mouth of executives and investors. Look for the biggest complaint of your customers or the biggest inefficiency in your operations workflow. If the solution is mobile, do the smallest possible iteration of that solution. If it isn’t mobile, fix the pain without mobile. Rinse and repeat as needed.
  3. OFF-THE-SHELF is an OKAY START– On that note, with the thousands of tech companies out there, don’t go custom on everything. Open or paid APIs, packaged solutions, and white-label solutions, and SDKs are all alternatives to re-inventing the wheel in a vacuum. Review your options carefully (but keep the scope of your goals tight enough your review doesn’t paralyze you).

Warning: Your Company is WASTING Money.

Warning: Your Company is WASTING Money.

Companies are throwing away money.  The bottom line is sick.  Margins are dying.

In my last post I said the number one sign of “Information Inefficiency” is the clipboard.  To take Lean and Six Sigma to the next level, a disruption must occur.  The workplace experience must be transformed.  However, accomplishing true disruption will take more than replacement of each paper process one by one with a virtual process.  Replacing each clipboard in your company with a tablet is simply not enough.

Your company is losing money to the clipboard mindset.

The clipboard mindset has several symptoms:

  • The worker capturing information cannot easily pass that expertise to new employees.
  • The information lives in an abbreviated form until the worker adds context elsewhere.
  • The form/paperwork itself requires training before it can be utilized.
  • It takes more than a day for the information to “go digital”.

The clipboard mindset is pervasive in the digital era.  Your workforce may not carry around paper forms on a clipboard with a No. 2 pencil anymore by my experience with hundreds of companies is that the inefficiencies of the clipboard mindset spread like a virus into our laptops, tablets, and smart phones.

What’s the real cost of clipboard mindset?  

#1 – Delayed information symmetry.

Imagine the three most important pieces of information for your P&L.  Where did it originate?  Where does it go?   How long did that take?  In economics, information asymmetry is a crucial element of Game Theory and the Nash Equilibrium.  In a zero-sum game in which each player tries to make a decision based on the potential decisions of every other player, “information asymmetry” is like being the only poker player who can see another player’s cards.  While we typically apply this to businesses competing with one another, the same can apply to every decision that will impact more than one person.

Although it is not possible to know the same information that your competition knows about themselves, minimizing the time it takes to know your own business is critical.  In the information age, information symmetry up and down and across the organization must be instantaneous to keep decisions informed.  A clipboard delays information symmetry between the person who gained the insight and the person who needs to make a decision about it.


#2 – Social Decontextualization.

Whatever piece or pieces of information you’re imagining right now, this information is fundamentally social in nature.  How often does it need additional explanation?  How long does it take to get that explanation, or – worse yet – how often do you dismiss it because an explanation isn’t available?

Whether that information came from a conversation with an employee, a site visit by a sales manager, or diagnostic output from specialized machinery, every clipboard – physical or digital – is missing human context.  Every checkbox strips out nuance, every fill-in-the-blank limits information sharing, every abbreviated word gambles against forgetfulness.  Context is fundamental to human expression.  Why is it decontextualization so inefficient?  The social and tribal part of our brains and makes decisions has no capacity to understand language.  As Simon Sinek shares,

Our newest brain, our Homo Sapien brain, our neocortex, corresponds with the “what” level. The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought and language. The middle two sections make up our limbic brains, and our limbic brains are responsible for all of our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It’s also responsible for all human behavior, all decision-making, and it has no capacity for language.

Sharing the feeling of the moment is the most important element of taking one person’s social context and passing it to another as actionable information.  A clipboard captures very little of our context so that is not passed from the person who felt the moment and the person who needs to make a decision about it.


#3 – Decision Fatigue.

If your company has introduced a wellness program, you may have already heard of the idea of “presenteeism” – showing up to work for your normal day but so “out of it” that the contribution is well below 100%.  While the wellness community focuses on the impact of poor-but-not-quite-sick “physical” health, the clipboard mindset is the root of another form of presenteeism: decision fatigue.

The neuroscience of decision-making shows that the entire brain and even a fair amount of the body uses up resources in the process of turning executive function into action.  The more you have to recall from long-forgotten memories, the higher the level of attentiveness required, the more stress or other emotions that get involved, and the greater the threat or potential reward of the moment – these drain taxing multiple systems in a smartphone (geolocation, graphics processing, bluetooth) drain the battery of a smartphone.

Problematically, while we can make other plans for getting directions if our smartphone battery dies, when our decision-making “battery” is exhausted, we often have several hours of work and decisions to make!  Feeling stuffy due to allergies may reduce your attentiveness, but hitting the decision fatigue wall at 2pm causes the brain to rely purely on fight, flight, or freeze.  This type of presenteeism doesn’t just make us less efficient, it makes us overreact, avoidant, or complacent about the status quo.

While productivity experts will recommend structuring your day and creating a routine that removes unnecessary decisions, these are the low-hanging fruit of decision fatigue.

Transformative mobility revolutionizes businesses by tackling the the toughest, most painful consequences of decision fatigue – adding context, recommending information, removing fear of failure, minimizing the need of distant memories, communicating instantly rather than adding the fear of forgetting the meaning of your own notes.


Breaking the Clipboard Mindset

If your current Mobility Strategy has left the clipboard mindset intact, move the conversation to finding ways improving the workplace experience can increase the engagement and effectiveness of your employees:

  • Capture context seamlessly – location, weather conditions, and biometric data are all becoming simpler to capture along with the information the employee adds
  • Use visual cues rather than words – The decision-making part of the brain doesn’t read the words, use photo, video, and metaphor rather than words
  • Help answer questions – don’t just fill in the blank:  one choice should simplify the next choice by narrowing the possible options, reducing the stress of poor decisions
  • Proactively provide information – from geofencing to notifications, employees should not hunt for what they need – it should already be there
  • Rely on search over personal memory – a simple front-end and powerful back-end will empower workers to find what they need rather than memorizing it


STOP wasting money!

The clipboard mindset is destroying the ROI of your human and IT resource investments, perpetuating bad margins through inefficiency and ineffectiveness, it is time to break yourself and your company free.

If you are looking for ideas or training on these concepts for you and your team, send me a message.


How to be the Apple of Lean Six Sigma

Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma, and Process Improvement have revolutionized the way businesses approach Operational Effectiveness in their physical processes for decades.  Elimination of wasted time, energy, and materials in physical processes took the world from the industrial revolution to the smart phone.

For an example of process improvement in Lean Manufacturing, imagine:

You start a lawn mower engine company in your garage.  By the end of the engine assembly process the engine weighs 50lbs.  The process requires six tables with equipment necessary for the process.  These tables are arranged three on each side of the garage in the order you purchased them, oldest to newest .  Your back hurts, your feet hurt, and you’re having trouble keeping up with demand.

One morning, sipping your coffee, dreading the job you once loved, you have an epiphany – changing the arrangement of the tables would allow you to eliminate walking across the garage three times while holding the engine as it gets increasingly heavy!  So you take 20min to move the tables, but cut 30 minutes per engine from the process.  You spend more time doing what you love, less time in pain, and now – energized and more efficient – you meet customer expectations easily.

Starting a small engine company in your garage in the digital era sounds pretty unlikely today right?  Won’t we all 3D print engines soon?  Won’t lawnmowers use solid-state hover-board technology that never breaks in the next decade?

This physical mindset for Lean is the fundamental issue facing anyone I know in Six Sigma or Lean Process Improvement.  Companies large and small are facing the same problem I’ll call “Improvement Saturation”.  Improvement Saturation is exactly why Operational Effectiveness is not Strategy – best demonstrated practices become common knowledge across and outside industries.  While Lean initiatives can secure margins and save the health of employees, each short-term edge is destined to become commonplace (and sometimes, mandated by law).   But what if that well dries up?  What happens when you just can’t find another way to get more operationally effective than the competition?

Companies today MUST rethink their approach to Six Sigma in the digital era.  The physical world has reached Improvement Saturation.  The ROI of Lean projects are shrinking.  What should you do?

Don’t just aspire to be the Toyota of Lean orSix Sigma.

Be the Apple of Lean Six Sigma.

In the digital era, process improvement must shift to the cost, the waste, and the inefficiency of the way information is handled, carried, and distributed across your employees in both the physical and virtual world in which your key business processes are completed.

What is the number one sign your company has information process inefficiencies?  THE CLIPBOARD

Imagine the most important piece of information your company writes on a clipboard everyday.  Now pretend that one piece of information is a 50lbs box.  If you want to really feel the three gen of that information, grab a real 50lbs box and follow that clipboard with its imprisoned, currently useless, but mission-critical information until it reaches its final destination.  How many days did it take?  How many minutes or hours from Point A to Point B?  How far did it walk?  Are you tired now?

If that were a real 50lbs thing and you could “fax it” to a 3D printer instead of carrying it, how much time, energy, and money would you save?

Companies who keep carrying around baggage like this will get left behind.

If that information is truly mission-critical, that clipboard is delaying information symmetry and encouraging decision fatigue.  A mature mobile strategy fixes this and it will launch your Lean Process Improvement program into the information age.  Take the leap from improvement to transformation.

To become the Apple of Lean or Six Sigma you need three things:

#1  Intuitive workplace experience – Just like the assembly line removed virtually any need to train the location of fabrication and assembly steps and Apple brought the one touch visual interface to our preferred window to the world, mobile apps done right take the training out of new best practice implementation, minimize the on-boarding of new hires, and give your Process Improvement projects version control, instant feedback, and usage analytics.

#2  Crowdsource everything –  Just like autonomation at Toyota let one Quality Control person oversee the output of triple or quadruple the output and safety has been revolutionized by empowering every employee to stop the line when they spot a hazard, the iPhone “went viral” once the App Store gave everyone a place to publish and distribute supply-side, download and consume demand-side billions of new smart phone software options.  Lean Six Sigma in the digital age of social media and blog posts must empower the passion and pride of the people, engage the disruptive mavericks, and re-create the social ecosystem of your company in ways that transcend corporate structures to solve problems.

#3 Learn the ROI of Information Efficiency – 2014 was deemed the year of “Consumerization of IT” and 2015 was the “Re-enterprisation of IT” – the next three to five years will be both.  The worker as enterprise consumer and the enterprise as solution provider will need cross-functional collaboration to reinvigorate stagnant processes.  Just like Kanban removes the waste of a batch-and-queue system, Apple’s iPhone shifted information consumption to “on-demand” or “notification” driven.  People love apps.  They put the world easily and instantly at our fingertips, personalized to our needs.  They tell us it will rain before we ask, where to go when we’re lost, and instantly answer virtually any trivia, schedule, and sports question we may have.  Information efficiency is contextual, proactive, and self-advertising.  You don’t need to “hunt” on a clipboard, spreadsheet, or green screen for the data that matters – that data, and its implications, should alert you proactively, predicting your need-to-know.

#4 – Don’t do it alone!  If you are looking for ideas or training on these concepts for you and your team, send me a message! is LIVE!

Looking for one place to find information on upcoming event, share ideas, and get more involved in the Chicago Scrum User Group sponsored by  It just went LIVE:

Want to help make it more awesome?

  1. RSVP for our next event, May 12th in Downers Grove
  2. Sign up for the newsletter so we can keep you informed about upcoming events
  3. Give feedback on the site, topics you would like for future meetings
  4. Contribute a blog post on what you have learned about Scrum, Agile, Lean, or XP