Assuming Risk

My friend Wes Trochlil pointed out his favorite definition of entrepreneur in a post today:

…someone who organizes a business venture and assumes the risk for it.

That really does get to the essence of it, especially the part that comes after ‘and.’

Entrepreneurship is all about taking on risk in order to achieve something greater. The classic business entrepreneur puts their cash, assets, time and relationships on the line when she starts a new enterprise. The risks for an orgpreneur, someone who works within an organization in an entrepreneurial way, are different.

Orgpreneurial risk can include:

  • Time.
  • Budget.
  • Staff.
  • Status.
  • Relationships.
  • Employment.

Rarely if ever does an orgpreneur put their house on the line when they start something new. The risks are significantly lower when working internally while the gains do not have as much direct financial reward for the individual.

So, why take on the risk inside an organization? Many people chose not to. But what a boring professional life! The risks for an orgpreneur are hardly fatal and, if you should lose your job over something (very rare), you have the skills and value to be back at it in short order even in the worst of economies.

The value of orgpreneurial risk taking internally include: achievement and tangible results; personal satisfaction; motivated teams; contribution to your mission; looking forward to work; career advancement; preparation for better work somewhere else.

The other benefit to taking risk within the organization is that you will achieve things, you will be more valuable. You will be more secure in your position and career than if you never took a risk internally. Taking no risk is simply too risky for anyone working in organizations today.

Example of a Goal That Matters in Action

An Apparel Factory Defies Stereotypes, but Can It Thrive

I read this story in the New York Times over the weekend about Knights Apparel, a company that manufactures t-shirts and other clothing for college book stores. The founder and CEO, Joseph Bozich, wanted to not only offer a great and profitable product, he wanted to address a critical issue in the apparel market: being successful without paying wages that keep workers below the poverty level.

As you read it, you can note the passion for their work that the executives, their workers, and their customers have for the idea of creating apparel while paying workers a living wage. This is the dynamic that goals that matter create.

The kind of endeavor you are in, for profit or not, doesn’t really matter. What does is a goal that motivates your leadership and staff while drawing to you the customers or constituents you need to make it happen.

Fly the Airplane

I just finished Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, in which he discussed how instituting checklists can reduce risk and increase positive results in many areas of management and operations.

One of many stories that caught my eye in the book was that of the checklist for engine failure in single engine Cesna planes. These craft, flown by a solo pilot, have a set series of actions that the manufacturer recommends taking when the engine fails, giving the pilot the best chance possible of getting the propeller back in action.

The first item on the checklist? FLY THE AIRPLANE.

Solo pilots become so absorbed in restarting the engine that they are prone to forget flying the gliding craft so that when they do restart the engine they haven’t already nosed over into the ground.

This is a very important point when in crisis, either professional or personal. We have to keep flying our planes. Whether that is making sure important tasks are still being completed during overwhelming crises at work or taking care of healthy family members even while caring for another who is critically ill.

If we don’t keep flying the plane we won’t have much left to work with once the crisis has passed. And they all do pass eventually.

As Winston Churchill said, “If you are going through Hell, keep going.” Keep flying the plane.

Disciplined Creativity

Early last year I went on a bit of a learning binge, reading books by some of my favorite or respected creators about the process of creativity. I find it a fascinating topic overall but at the time I was ramping up for writing my first solo authored book and wanted to see how they did it. It was highly relevant and urgent for me given the task ahead (new projects are always my favorite way to learn!).

I read On Writing by Stephen King, Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life, and John Scalzi’s You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing.

(I give Scalzi the best in show award for the title alone!)

King is a horror writer you’ve probably heard of, Scalzi is one of my favorite sci/fi authors (he has interesting ideas about science and the future while still being able to tell a hell of a story), and Tharp is one of the preeminent choreographers today.

The one thing they all had in common: creation is a discipline. The writers all have established a schedule of working on their art that they stick to without much deviation. Equally important, they create whether they are feeling ‘inspired’ or not. The artist burning with the intensity of an idea and then creating madly in an epic session is the rare exception and not sustainable.

These three creators, who have made works highly valued by others repeatedly for years, are workman like about their art. They go at it every day. Is everything a gem? Hardly. But their mix of talent (yes you do need some!) with dedication and consistent effort is why they stand out from the crowd.

As you might guess, this same lesson applies equally well to any other endeavor. With so much work being knowledge oriented today, creativity is worth more than ever.

The lessons from these three creators should give you heart: keep working at it and you will be creative. Don’t worry about inspiration, it’ll happen when it happens. Your discipline is what enables you to take advantage of it.

Have You Killed Your Sacred Zombie Cow Today?

I asked Hugh MacLeod to design this cube grenade for Hugh’s cube grenade cartoons serve as conversation bombs, something with which to break a conceptual log jam and get things moving. I think this one is a great bomb for a lot of organizations.

Please share this around, tape it to the wall, post it to your intranet, or slap it down on the table in your next staff meeting. Just don’t ignore those sacred zombie cows grazing in your hallways!

Have You Killed Your Sacred Zombie Cow Today?

You must kill your sacred zombie cow if you want your organization to survive and thrive.

Allow me to explain.

Mark Parker, CEO of Nike, said in an interview that his top priority is making sure his company edits, that it removes products and ideas of low quality and value. Parker said that Steve Jobs once told him that Nike is a great company but it would be better if they stopped making ‘crap.’

As Parker implicitly admitted in the interview, it is hard to stop making crap even if you already produce some of the best products in your industry. If it were easy Parker wouldn’t care about it.

The problem with crap is that it is too easy to make. Crap keeps people busy. We’ve always made crap! But crap gets in the way of making the remarkable, the insanely valuable, the things for which you are the best.

Thus the focus on editing at Nike.

Enter the sacred zombie cow. Sacred zombie cows are the purest manifestation of crap within an organization. These are programs, products and services that are a net negative to the company and yet are incredibly hard to kill. They no longer have a strong sponsor on the scene but still they shamble along, eating up resources.

People tend to walk around sacred zombie cows like they are just a piece of furniture, ignoring how utterly dangerous they are.

Peter Drucker, the godfather of business strategy, said that the most innovative companies are those that are ruthless about stopping things. They maniacally root out and destroy sacred zombie cows, like a Van Helsing in Dockers.

Why are these highly innovative companies so focused on the art of the stop? Because it frees up resources that can be invested to develop new products, services and programs.

It is that simple.

Innovation solely through growth is inherently unsustainable. At some point all organizations hit a plateau. Those that never bothered to learn how to stop something go from radical growth to radical stagnation.

If you’ve been editing out the sacred zombie cows all along, then the chances of hitting a plateau are less and when you do hit one you have the ability to change at the precise moment that you need to.

Find your sacred zombie cow. Turn around, it’s right behind you.

Now drive a stake through its heart. Or defenestrate it. Or give it away to another company! Do what you must to get it out and gone forever.

Even if you are the one who turned it loose in the first place.

Killing sacred zombie cows is an act of optimism. It frees your organization to focus on excellence. More personally, it just might unleash a creative burst that takes you to a new level of achievement.

Getting Off The Bus

Jim Collins said in his book Good to Great that one of the keys to being a great organization is to have the right people on the bus even if you don’t know where they are going to sit. Great talents will overcome the ambiguity and become productive quickly while the talentless will provide little even with assigned seats.

Let’s say you are the talent. You are on the bus. Hurrah! But, wait a minute: the bus is on fire, running on flats, and about to plunge off a cliff!

Time to find yourself a new bus. Going down with the ship, er bus, is heroic in novels and movies. It’s a waste of your potential in real life.

Ogpreneurs, high talent and motivated people, can do a lot but no one is a miracle worker. Life is short and the time we have to truly make a difference is more limited than we like to consider.

Only stay on a bus that is going somewhere you want to go and has a reasonably good shot of getting there with your help.

A Lone Wolf is a Dead Wolf: Why You Need a Pack

Wolves are pack animals. A lone wolf quickly dies because only with the support of a unified pack can they bring down animals with which to feed themselves.

Likewise, the lone wolf in an organization may have some limited success but it will be the exception rather than a consistent pattern.

You need your own wolf pack within and outside the organization. Who do you rely on? Who can help you to get things done, to get that new product or campaign out the door? Extend this to external providers as well. The more useful people with whom you have relationships the better you’ll able to put together a team that cannot be beat.

And always remember that it should be a reciprocal relationship. No pack will have you long if you only take from others. Be generous with your assistance, advice and aid when needed.

Organizational Politics is a Means, Not an End

When I worked on staff at associations, I was quite good at navigating organizational politics, particularly later in my career. What I realized was that organizational politics is simply a means to an end rather than the point of work. Once I figured that out, it was quite liberating and actually allowed me to engage in less politics while being more effective.

A critical part of managing organizational politics is understanding whether you are arguing about goals or about methods. Make this part of the conversation. Do we agree on what we are trying to achieve? If not, resolve that before moving on to determining how you will achieve it.

I have personally seen groups arguing about methodology when they had no agrement on what they were attempting to achieve. Going back to resolve the goal would often evaporate the original conflict because it was suddenly and obviously irrelevant to the clarified goal.

If you don’t clarify the core of the argument like this the only way to ‘win’ is by retaining your turf. This rarely creates value for the organization nor your mission.

Goals That Matter

My very first job when I moved to Washington DC in the early 90s was as a temp mailing sugar propaganda to schools across the country.

The goal of the organization at the time was to promote the health benefits of natural sugar. While I found the idea of mailing sugar information to schools pretty amusing, especially the Spanish-language version titled “El Diente,” it wasn’t a goal I cared about at all. I actually felt somewhat guilty about it. Combined with the mind-numbing work, it was hard to stay motivated and I did precisely what was expected of me and no more.

(I’m experiencing karmic payback now that I have two young children who love sugar!)

My next temp gig was filing paper event registration forms for an organization that helped companies relocate their employees more effectively. There was an international component to this, which I was very interested in since I had studied abroad in high school and college. The goal of relocation is to move people efficiently but also to do so in a way that enabled the employee to become effective in the job as soon as possible. Much of this work actually focuses on supporting their family more than the employee.

This was something that I could get behind. I had personal experience with it and knew how valuable it was to people uprooting their lives to move across the world.

It was a goal that mattered to me. I worked hard, was offered a permanent position and spent the next seven years moving through a half-dozen positions of increasing responsibility, constantly pushing to create new ways to achieve that goal.

What a difference a goal that mattered made to my career. I’m still exploring the path that those seven years opened up for me.

This is why goals that matter are critical if you want to be an orgpreneur. You need an evil plan. You need goals that will make you fail on the way to success.

You will actually harm your career if you take a job somewhere that does not pursue a goal that matters to you in some fashion. You will languish. You will not make exciting things happen.

Nothing other than a goal that matters will maintain your motivation and energy consistently over time.

You need a goal that matters. If you don’t have one, make one. Or find someone who has one you can get behind and work with them.

Life is short! Go for it.

Explore the Edges of Your Market

I worked as a book seller in Cleveland after graduating from college (that early 90s recession looks so cute now!). Working retail like this got to be a bit dull after a while.

To entertain myself on a slow day I would pick one book with at least three copies on the shelf and try to sell it out. I thought of it as David’s Book of the Day. This was great fun, in that I tried to come up with a good reason, a good hook, for anyone to read it no matter what they were looking for. Not everyone bought a copy but I was usually able to find enough people to sell it out before my shift was over. It made the time go faster and I helped a lot of people discover genres they wouldn’t have considered before.

A few lessons from this:

  • You really don’t know if someone will value your product until you offer it to them. Those who ask tend to get.
  • The customer will often judge a book by its cover. Be sure to educate them on the full value inside so they can make an educated decision.
  • The process of turning down one product or offer can often provide a lead to sell something else. Whenever I encountered someone who absolutely, positively, did not want to buy my book of the day, I usually knew enough about them from that conversation to offer them another book that they would buy.
  • Marketing and sales should be fun! There is no reason you can’t inject a little levity and personal challenge goals into it just to see if you can do it.

Push your market. Twist it. See what happens on the edges.