Startups and Social Capital

At a recent evening meeting, a panel discussion under the #thinkleader program sponsored by IBM, the panelists represented different startups. They were smart, energetic and focused, aware of the murky waters in which they swam. It was clear that they had considered and planned for financial capital; likewise for the talents and skills needed. But a common thread of difficulties had to do with external support for their fledgling companies.

One panelist had been surprised at the drop-off from when he was a manager at a well-known brand, with many eager acquaintances, to the sudden vacuum now that he was co-founder of a startup. It wasn’t just the challenge itself posed by the need for external support, those willing to give referrals on their behalf, pass along useful ideas and the like, but the element of surprise of that drop-off.

Startups need to include building of social capital as part of their business plan. It’s not just marketing or branding. The ability to count on someone for information, for referrals, for the myriad types of support that can face a startup is a form of wealth. In a prior post, focused on individuals, the concept of Cognitive Wealth was explored. Similarly for startups, social capital needs to be planned for and built, as an explicit part of the business plan.

And if you’re young in your career or going through a major change, try thinking of yourself as a startup.

Agile for Budgeting

Agile (Scrum in particular) is a framework for Product development, not just software development. It’s been successfully used for a wide variety of products, from medical devices to ad campaigns.

Let’s consider an organizational budget as another form of product, and explore if Agile might offer some advantages as an approach. Key among Agile values are embracing change; transparency; inspect and adapt.

Annual budgets are resistant to change, by their nature. While a sizeable portion of the budget might be necessarily fixed, not all of it need be. Some good-sized chunk of the overall budget can be marked as “adaptable”, being altered at some time-boxed frequency during the year, to best meet business priorities at that point in time, by a consistently organized team. Depending upon the organization, its culture and needs, the release of this could be quarterly or more often.

The overall annual budget tends to reflect a command and control culture in most organizations, even in those perceived otherwise. The budgeting typically is one pass, and then consolidated. Instead, try multiple passes, iterating, with transparency of plans between organizational units.

The funds for each item are implicitly the metric for business value; if there are other factors, then this needs to be explicitly stated, and ranking of business value made clear, for each budget item.

If an organization is going through a significant transformation, the budget not only should reflect this, but needs to adapt to changing circumstances along that transformational journey. The environment around the organization will change, and particularly for transformations, malleability is essential for success. Adaptive means agile, not the traditional approach.

note: originally posted to LinkedIn Pulse, Nov. 2015

Innovation and the Octopus

To create something innovative, one needs to look at things in a new way, going a quantum leap away from the well-trodden paths of the usual. To help stimulate creativity, try examining something unusual, something very different from our familiar world view.

Our way of viewing the world is that of an upright two legged, with two upper limbs and a hand at the end of each, having prehensile fingers.

Our companion animals usually are 4-legged, mostly with more acute sensory abilities than us, but overall, not too unlike ourselves and our view.

Our robotic creations tend to follow those structures and patterns, remaining close to the familiar.
For a very different perspective, consider the octopus and their marvelous abilities; a species millions of years older than our own.

Invertebrate: a large octopus can still squeeze through a 2 inch opening (or even smaller), presenting a challenge to keeping curious octopuses inside man-made containers or tanks. To date our robotic designs are vertebrate-centric; one might consider a soft robot, modeled after the octopus.

While almost all our cognitive neural capacity is centrally located in our brain, the octopus uses a more distributed model, with only about half centrally located, with the rest distributed to its limbs.

A user of tools and toys, one might contemplate what an octopus considers amusing or beautiful. What are the means and media of beauty and harmony for an octopus? How might that intersect with our own aesthetic concepts? Does the geometric pleasure of a Bach fugue resonate for an octopus?

Octopuses exhibit a wide range of behavioral patterns, perhaps falling into categories: are some more extroverted? How can one design a Meyers-Briggs type personality test for an octopus? For robots, how does one differentiate an introvert versus extrovert?

One might not readily associate the octopus with fashion and design, but some creative ideas might arise from contemplation of how a color-blind creature superbly camouflages more quickly than a chameleon. Could a chair be adaptive to the color or pattern of clothes worn by the person adorning it? Or have jewels adapt to nearby attire? (e.g., a modernized, Tiffany-class mood ring).

So much difference from our own way of being, our perceptions, should lead to some inspirations for innovation.

For those curious about the wonders of the octopus, try Sy Montgomery’s “Soul of an Octopus”. It’s a rich, clear and easy read, with the author’s tinge of wonder about the world.

Increasing Cognitive Wealth

Your cognitive wealth is the sum of what you know, your personal knowledge, that which you are able to perceive; plus knowledge readily accessible whether from a search engine on the internet or from one’s personal library; plus information easily obtained from others.

The part based on one’s personal knowledge is the easiest to control and have immediate impact. Develop an approach to learning; think about the processes you perform when trying to learn something new. Your strategy for learning should include some way of becoming aware of new things that might be of interest, continuing to broaden your horizons. For me, reading is a preferred way of increasing my personal knowledge, supplemented with online video tutorials, and face-to-face group meetings, especially for subjects of professional interest.

The part that is readily accessible knowledge is a bit trickier. One is now relying upon tools (a book is a tool). One of the challenges is to find the right tool at the right time; a large personal library without some organization is of diminished value.

To increase the wealth brought by the internet, learn about the parameters of search engines. One needs to supplement the general search with a more focused one. Valuable nuggets are often buried far down when using a general search. For example, use of the “site:” modifier might yield information closer to the top of your search list. Another is to try other search engines, perhaps specialized ones.

For some topics augment your search engine by directly searching in Twitter. The jewels there might take the form of links to useful articles that might not show near the top of results from a general search engine.

Enriching the quality of one’s relationships with others increases the ease of obtaining information from them. You need to be aware of not just who might have knowledge on a topic, but also of their willingness to share with you, and the ease you have in communicating your need to them.

One means of improving that is to make your own knowledge readily available to others. Carrying this further, if I know someone well enough, I’ll keep my eyes open for information of likely interest to them. A form of social arbitrage, not only connecting people with others, but with information that they’d appreciate. That connecting and sharing enriches not only you, but those around you.

Islands of Competence

“Islands of competence” is a term devised by Dr. Robert Brooks, psychologist at the Harvard Medical School, to refer to the distinct strengths that each individual has.  Instead of focusing on fixing deficiencies, it changes to one of identifying and reinforcing strengths.

While his thoughts were about individuals, particularly those with learning disabilities, they apply to growth and development of any individual, and to teams as well.

Identifying strengths is challenging, either for individuals or teams.  As individuals we are acutely aware of our weaknesses, but oblivious to many of our strengths.  Teams may be even less aware of their special powers as a collaborative group.

Observe behavior over time; that should provide a starter list of strengths.  Ask the team, possibly in the context of a session on Lessons Learned, or an Agile Retrospective, especially after a product release.

The concentration on improving areas already perceived as strong should build self-esteem and team morale.  From that momentum, and feeling of confidence, it is then easier to cope with improving deficiencies.  That positive feeling improves the ability to face challenges and difficult circumstances, increasing resilience of both individuals and teams.


Dr. Robert Brooks


Innovation and Cognitive Diversity

 When we form a team, we tend to populate it with people whose thought processes are similar to our own. It’s natural, in part because it’s easier on us. People whose priorities and thought processes are distinctly different from our own are potential sources of friction within the group.

 But when there’s a need to address complex issues, come up with innovation, combine components in new and value-enhancing ways, then having a team that is cognitively diverse is of benefit. Cognitive diversity means diversity in how we think, in how we perceive and prioritize those perceptions.

 There are some necessary conditions for cognitive diversity to have benefit: team members have to be able to get along with each other, and to work together towards a goal commonly agreed upon.

 Cognitive diversity implies that some members of the group will perceive the world differently, and have distinct mental toolsets associating those perceptions. The interaction between cohesive yet distinct viewpoints allows for fresh solutions, perhaps combining existing processes or elements in new ways.


Improving Requirements (Strengthening Waterfall)

One of the weaker phases in waterfall product development is the area of requirements.  Unclear or incorrect requirements are recognized as a major cause of grief on projects, if not outright disaster.

What is your feeling about the relationship between the requirements document and the ultimate product delivered?
How readily does the requirements document map to the required functionality?
Does it include a description or list of functionality that is out of scope? (“Thou shalt not…”)

In general, part of the problem is that there’s no real QA process on the requirements document, typically, only a user sign-off.  That’s an approval, not a QA process.  If the document is much over 10 pages, this is about as useful as handing someone a globe to use for direction to someone’s house for a holiday dinner.  You’re lucky if you even wind up in the right town, let alone the right neighborhood.

Typical waterfall environments have a QA function, usually for testing the finished product  Too often they only get involved late in development, often after all coding is allegedly done.  Why restrict their role so much?

Get them involved sooner, and involved with the analysts creating that requirements document. Involved, meaning interacting and talking directly to each other.  QA is designing the tests and should be able to identify unclear areas of the requirements, perhaps even missing parts. To flesh it out further, the QA group designs the tests based upon the requirements, and the business (not the BA who did the requirements) then reviews the test structures for completeness and accuracy, closing the feedback loop on the requirements document.  That process is independent of coding; it can start before any coding.

Another wobbly area is the clarity of the requirements for the developers.  Of course, clarity is only important when the document is actually read.

Another way to have some QA process for requirements is to have something similar to a peer review for coding, but in this case, instead of code, it is the requirements that are reviewed.

Come up with your variation of a QA process for requirements, one appropriate to the culture of your organization and resources available.