Beware of Shiny Objects

In a world where we have so much information at our fingertips, it’s easy to get caught up in chasing shiny objects.  Like the dog in the movie UP!  who is distracted by squirrels, if we react to every stimulus we can spend all our time chasing and no time finishing.

The folks at Manager’s Tools talk use the term “Race don’t Chase”, referring to managing through a downturn.  The idea is that you race ahead of a downturn by cutting deeply once, instead of chasing the downturn with ongoing cuts.  How would it look if we applied the “Race don’t Chase” principle to opportunities too?  Could we get ahead of an opportunity instead of constantly chasing them down?

I’ve observed companies pursuing opportunities in 3 different ways:

  • The Whipsaw.  These companies throw all their energy into it when they see an opportunity.  And then when they see another opportunity, they throw all their energy at that one, leaving the last one in the dust.  The prior opportunity is often kept alive but starved for resources (and by that I mean money) giving it almost no chance of success. These companies think they are playing the field, but in fact, they are chasing the ball.

    Try this:  If you are a whipsaw, experiments are a great idea.  Invest some money in the opportunity to prove it out.  Assign a small team. Design clear learning goals for your experiment. This does not mean that you have to go slow, it just means that you have to start small.  Don’t solve scale problems until you solve sales problems. Will people even buy it? Resist the urge to shout it from the rooftops and whip everyone into a frenzy.  
  • The Spaghetti Wall.  These companies believe that if you throw enough spaghetti at the wall, something will stick.  Maybe they are right, but they make a huge mess! The Spaghetti Wall spreads their budget pretty evenly across everything, and when something new comes along, all other project budgets are simply diluted.  When something sticks, there is no money left to invest.

Some Spaghetti Walls can get stuck in their OODA loop (observe, orient, decide, act), they will continually orient and re-orient, but never decide or act.  When you work there it feels like you are spinning in circles. The performance criteria become task-based since outcomes are rarely achieved by anyone.

Try this:  Shrink your Spaghetti Wall and separate it from the implementation.  Here’s how. Allocate fixed budget for the Spaghetti Wall (perhaps call it ‘product exploration’ or ‘R&D’), the portfolio team will need to constantly evaluate and prioritize these items because the budget is fixed.  The teams working on exploratory work are different than the implementation teams. The exploratory teams are skilled at things like “Red Teaming” where they try to poke holes in the idea, get customer feedback, assess risks and generally beat the crap out of the initiative.  The exploratory team has no stake in whether the idea lives or dies because they work on a steady stream of new things. This is important because once people identify with the initiative, they will fight to keep it alive, despite what’s best for the company.

  • The Horse Blinders.  The Horse Blinders put all their money on an opportunity and run full steam ahead with laser-like focus.  These folks are not distracted by shiny objects. They are over-indexed in the other direction, they leave no room for threats or opportunities.  The problem is that if a brick wall comes up, they will run straight into it.

Try this:  Focus is awesome, don’t lose that.  But someone’s got to be scanning the horizon. Similar to the Spaghetti Wall, a Red Team or Exploration Team is a great idea.  Also, similar to the Whipsaw, make sure to run experiments before putting the blinders on.

How does your organization handle new opportunities?