From September 2011

Choosing a path with your eyes wide open

There’s a balance between being open to the new opportunities we’re not pursuing or seeing and focus.

What matters is looking at your current quest and validate against what else you could be investing your time in. Because always looking at those alternatives can be a distraction preventing you from fully committing and executing on your core vision. Yet making a choice and blindly following it is definitely not the way to go. I know this to be true. Because over a decade ago I fervently pursued a photography career, diligently researching the market, developing my skills and connecting with prospective buyers. I had a first-rate portfolio that resonated with many creative I connected with. Creatives that many of whom soon lost their jobs in the dot com crash. I can blame the economy and the rapid change the profession saw as it transformed to digital and it become easier and easier for anyone to make good pictures. To make it you had to be so much more. The pie was shrinking. Just as it is in so many other jobs that are disappearing today.

The other piece was me. I recognized that I wanted to do more than just make pictures. To play a bigger role in the process of building and leading creative teams. It took me awhile to recognize this because I was blind to it. I also didn’t trust myself to shoot the images I really wanted to shoot, focusing instead on what I thought the market wanted. Big mistake. I was slow to recognize where I really excelled and belonged.

I also know distraction. As someone who thrives on new opportunities, who wants to explore all the options before choosing, I’ve often found myself distracted and paralyzed. Especially since my first big commitment failed. It becomes easier not to choose or to put off making a choice until tomorrow while I continue looking at the possibilities. So days become weeks, weeks become months, and the months become years.

Lately I’ve come to think it was because I hadn’t settled on what that quest should be. My focus is on circling around, testing, validating, rejecting and iterating. More quickly and decisively. Absorbing the lessons I’ve learned before and allowing things to sit a bit – especially the euphoria of a new idea. If it’s still there in a month or mutates into something different but related, I know I’m getting closer.  I’m a late bloomer and know that the path I’ve taken thus far – bumpy, turbulent and haphazard has shaped me. It’s setting the stage for what’s next and I’m arriving at a new level of purpose and confidence and sense of forward momentum. I can see the path I need to choose and am taking it but remembering to enjoy the journey along the way. Because as Nike said long ago, there is no finish line. When we get where we think we want to go, the bar is raised, the goal moved and a new challenge awaits us.

 

The Collaboration Conundrum

Collaboration is good thing. You get people working together, you get a company aligned around shared goals and ultimately higher productivity. With collaboration, people are not pursuing their own agendas, wasting company resources and blocking important initiatives. Cross-departmental silos fall and you have corporate bliss. Or so we think.

Collaboration has a dark side too.

Projects can take longer or stall out while you seek buy-in from all of the stakeholders, and creative concepts get diluted in the process of making everyone happy to GET the buy-in. You can also, in the case of web and product design, end up with increased complexity and a diminished end-user experience. Everyone wants their idea included. Everyone wants their features. Everyone wants all things for all people. And collaboration can make that happen.

Problem is, you rarely end up with an elegantly simple solution or compelling creative. Collaboration has the tendency to dilute things. Imagine starting out with a cup of rich, French-press coffee and ending with reheated three-day old drip. That’s burnt from sitting the heat far too long. Not a tasty prospect.

Without collaboration, however, you get silos, political turf battles and wasted potential. When everyone’s focused on maximizing their department’s budget and objectives, you don’t often find a company focused on creating a magical customer experience.

So what’s the magic bullet?

Like anything, it’s balance. And that comes in the form of a strong leader who can pull everything together, get the needed alignment, but have the ability to break ties and actually make decisions in the best interest of the customer and thus the business. Note that I put the customer first because THEY pay the rent. Make them happy and the business can prosper. Ignore them in favor of your local spreadsheet and you’ll see them walk away.

That appears to be what Netflix did when they rolled out their new pricing strategy without communicating clearly – IN ADVANCE – with their customer base. They made assumptions based on what they thought would happen – and where they felt they needed to go to drive company profits. Their past success clouded led to arrogance and a more inward focus. What they should have done was talk to their customers, letting them know they needed to make some changes and why. Get the customers to see how it could benefit them, give them some notice and press forward. In short, collaborate a little.

Seems they also didn’t do their homework when breaking off the mail-order part into a new brand called Qwikster and doing the basics like checking availability of the Twitter handle. Oops. Nor thinking through the confusion with the name.

Now you have what appears to be an ill-conceived strategy building on an ill-conceived price change rollout. This is a case where collaboration inside and outside the organization could be greatly increased along with leadership that knows what business it’s in and can execute. Seems they’re still figuring that part out and have only further angered their once happy customer base.

One key t0 successful collaboration is recognizing that no matter what you do, you don’t have any control. It makes the inner conflict you feel when people just aren’t ‘getting’ with the program a lot less painful. You create your own reality just like everyone else does* Sure, you can put processes in place to make things more predictable but everyone brings a different set of experiences, judgments and agendas to the table. No two people see things exactly the same way. Acknowledging that control is an illusion and letting go, serving more as a guide can improve the collaboration. People dig their heels in when they perceive they’re being controlled or manipulated, but more easily connect when they’re valued, heard and respected. Not everyone will get what they want, but that’s life. Collaboration is messy because people are human and ultimately unpredictable. But that’s where the good stuff happens. Allow a little serendipity and creative solutions surface. Even the process may feel smoother with less politicking.

But when it comes decision time, a strong leader is willing to take a stand and own it. SOMEONE needs to own it, or you end up with sloppy wet milk toast. Too often leaders are more worried about being liked and over-collaborate. Again, it’s balance. Effective collaboration is an art form not a science. People are inconsistent. Irrational. You learn by taking chances. And being willing to fail and get back out there again. You might not be collaborative enough and people will let you know it and sabotage your project. So next time out you over do it and get something less than stellar. What do you do?

Get over it and get on with it.

*Read Are you ready to Succeed by Srikumar Rao for a good primer on this