What chess taught me

When I was a kid, I enjoyed playing chess. I was part of my school chess club, part of the first team and at one time actually won the local county (amt) championship in my age group.

Chess was fun and interesting. And taught me a couple of important lessons about life;

Looking and planning ahead a few moves is cool. But if it comes at the expense of taking your eye of the ball of what’s happening right here and right now, you’re still going to loose.

So. Keep. Your. Eyes. On. The. Ball.

On the other hand; if you’re acting too quickly in the spur of the moment and not showing enough patience to completely your next move so it ends being a wise one, you’re also going to loose.

As in all other aspects a life, it is a question about balance.

Don’t overthink, don’t stress.

Be smart.

Contemplate the situation – state of play.

Think in options and alternatives.

Make the move that seems to bring you closer towards your objective while at the same time preserving your interests.

Repeat. And repeat. Etc.

More people should really take up chess.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

The Catch 22 of strategy

2021 is upon us. And for many that signals the roll-out of a new strategy or annual plan.

While those often seem intuitive – sometimes even banal – getting them right is super hard.

It is vital to be able to focus on executing on the plan. Yet, it is also vital to be open to the element of surprise.

The balance between the two is super hard.

If you only focus, you will get narrow-sighted and probably not succeed.

If you’re always open for the element of surprise, you’re unlikely to be able to focus and probably not succeed.

And if you mix the two, some will focus too narrow on the former and some will be distracted by the latter.

It is just super hard to get right.

But there is no way around trying.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Always think about strategy

When you’re busy executing on tasks, it can be super easy to forget about setting time aside to think about strategy.

But you should. For a number of reasons.

First of all you need to always make sure that what you’re working on is taking you in the right direction. There is the old saying that while a manager is the one leading the struggle through the jungle, the leader is the one making sure you are in the right jungle to begin with.

Be the leader.

Second, thinking about strategy is what keeps you curious about the market you are operating in. It keeps you focused on your customers and their needs, on the competition and on emerging trends in technology and behavior.

All of these inform what you should be doing. And most importantly: They enable you to course correct on the fly.

Third, thinking about strategy on the go is what keeps you from having to start your strategy all over from scratch again. It enables you to mold and update your strategy, as you go, based on learnings. And thus captures the value of all your hard work – even the work that didn’t end according to plan.

Finally, thinking about strategy broadens your horizon and keeps you sharp. Think about it as essential training; with enough training you go from being a simple recruit to a Navy Seal. It’s just a matter of discipline and hard work.

So don’t ever let anyone tell you, you shouldn’t think about strategy, ok?

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

That’s so junior…

Back in the day I had a very experienced direct report who I used as a sounding board for thoughts and ideas to bring forward to executive management.

We would meet in my office (even though technically I didn’t have one), and we would go through the arguments, I had thought of making.

If I was off track, he would say in a very calm voice, while quietly shaking his head:

“Mads, that is junior behavior”.

And then he would follow it up with his interpretation of what senior behavior, aka the right sort of behavior, mingling, getting my point across needed to be successful with that particular project in that particular organization would be instead.

I listened. I better; he was usually right.

Since then I have always treasured having a sounding board and someone to lean on when things become a big hectic.

It is a nice contrast to my normal passionate, energetic ‘give-it-my-all-(alone)’-approach I often find myself (inadvertently) taking.

What I probably should become better at is making sure that I use the sounding board, when I need to and don’t leave it too long. But that too is a journey and learning experience waiting to be converted.

Into senior behavior.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Attacking a problem

There are two types of problems, you can pursue solving, when you’re trying to build a startup:

You can go after a problem that is really obvious and outspoken. Or you can go after a problem that is non-obvious but nonetheless exists.

If you go after the first, chances are that you will be far from alone in pursuing it. Especially if the problem is big, painful, and the market opportunity is big enough. While competition is by no means bad per se, it adds another level of stress to your journey than those that are already inherently present.

If you go after the latter, you may be more alone in the space of your choice. On the other hand you might also need to spend more time and energy activating the market, as your target market will be so accustomed to nothing happening that expectations that anything will ever materially change are low.

Both choices of direction of the journey comes with opportunities and pitfalls for you. You can succeed in both – and you can fail in both. It is mainly a question about what ends up becoming the decisive factors.

What you however can always do is to make sure that you understand your market, your future customers and their pains related to the problem, before you just dive head in to create your solution.

No matter your approach it will de-risk the journey immensely for you.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

The problem with OKR

I love OKR’s as a concept. And God knows I have been trying time and time again to make them and associated tracking apps and services work for me and my team.

But alas; I have failed every single time.

It is not that setting up OKRs is super hard; everybody can define and objective and a set of results to get to the objective. But sticking with it and having the discipline to work with it? That’s a whole different ball game.

For a startup context I think one of the reasons for this is that startup life is inherently messy; while you may have objectives, goals and other variations of KPIs (you should always have some of these) the journey towards them are never linear.

In practical terms what this means is that while you were addament you had it right, when you set your goals, they rarely survive when you fast forward to a future date. In fact, everything at this point in time might look substantially different.

I am fully aware that with OKR it is entirely possible to define your time periods, number of OKRs etc entirely as you wish. But if you’re changing them every other day what’s the point of having them to track against in the first place?

What I have found to work better is to have some pretty non-negotiable KPIs that are pretty specific but at the same time broad to enable all sorts of paths and journeys leading up to them.

1-2 on a six months basis is enough, I would argue. Especially at a super early stage, where having too many objectives will most likely only result in a lack of focus.

Agree on those and agree on providing a weekly or bi-weekly short status mail where you mention the points, the most important developments since last time, your confidence and actions until next update, and you’re set.

Forget everything else.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

The dangers of ‘digitalization’

The Danish Management Society‘s new focus on “Digital Reshaping” – whatever that wording means – made me think;

Whenever somebody talks about the need to ‘digitalize’ products or processes in an old industry company, you as a digital expert should be quite alert. Perhaps even worried.

Because what does the phrase really mean?

I will tell you what it seldom means;

It seldom means that the company in question is looking to question every single process and product it has in order to ask itself questions like “Is this still relevant?”, “Does the product serve a clear need in the market?” and “Have we REALLY understood what it means to make this a success in the current and future market?”. And make the necessary brutal decisions the answers demand.

It seldom means that the company is looking to change it’s entire operating model to embrace the uncertainty of a fast moving market and favor smaller, nimbler experiments as a way of understanding the need in the market before pushing for the big product delivery. And it never means a higher tolerance – embrace even – of risk. Or even a longer time horizon to get things right.

And it seldom means being really ambitious about the people you get on board and – crucially – the mandate you give them to actually make the needed changes happen and – hopefully – put the company on a better trajectory.

All of the above are in my humble opinion key elements for actually making the necessary things happen that will change the trajectory of the company into something better aligned with the needs of the current and future market and customers.

Of course you could be in luck. But alas, you will seldom see these things. What you will see when companies look to ‘digitalize’, though, is;

Doing more of the same but in a slightly different way. Typically by investing in expensive systems from convincing vendors and trying to operate them even though they are often overblown compared to the value they end up delivering to your company.

More of the ‘big bang’ releases that are being touted – using various fancy words – as ‘transformative’ or even downright ‘disruptive’ (which they never are, ed.) that end up failing in spectacular and (sometimes) even depressing ways.

The same old guard of people sitting there making all the decisions lacking the necessary insight into the depths of the matter and what needs to be done while confirming to each other that they have long ago figured this out. And the ruthless of identifying the scapegoat for failure and weeding out of everybody else, who think and try to act in a different way.

The end result?

More blindfolded investment. More wasted investment. More convenient scapegoats when things again don’t go according to the grand ol’ plan.

And very little real change.

So beware. And demand all the right answers to the proper questions, before you get involved.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Put yourself on the other side

Years ago I worked at Microsoft in an international role. I had a lot of dealings with US colleagues, and one thing that always puzzled me was how resistant they were to change or doing something differently.

That lasted until someone explained to me that in the US, the time is takes from a boss tells an employee he’s fired until the time, the employer is resolved from all obligations towards the unfortunate individual, is litterally the few seconds it takes to say “You’re fired”.

So when they resisted change, they were really just scared of potentially losing their jobs.

The experience made me realize that you always have to take a shot at trying to understand where the other side is coming from. Because while it can be super easy to get frustrated, there is usually an explanation behind it all; a context.

Sometimes it is even good and valid, and it always demands being treated with respect.

Does that mean that you should change the ways you think, the ideas you put forward and the way you see things being able to happen just to always suit the other side.

Not at all.

But it means you need to make sure that you don’t scare people off, so they jump to the wrong conclusions that could ultimately lead everything you’re working on astray.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)