This blog is going places…

Specifially it’s relocating to :

KaizenLife is a collaboration I’m starting with Kye Leslie, loosely based around the theme of a life of continuous improvement.

I’ll move some of the articles here across to KaizenLife over the next month and then shut this page down.

Thanks to everyone who’s followed me here and please come check us out at

KaizenLife Mindmap


A Boston Matrix for Software Features

A deceptively simple version of the Boston Matrix for software features in a product.

From this talk : Intercom’s Des Traynor at Business of Software Conference 2013, Boston, MA talking about why Product strategy is mostly about saying no. Funny, thought provoking and actionable –


Management by Guilt

I’ve noticed an alarming trend around me; it is management by guilt.

I’m sure it’s been there for a long time and I didn’t notice it, in fact I’m pretty sure I’ve even practiced it on occasion. But it is alarming none-the-less because it is dishonest,  damaging and dangerous.

The most recent manifestation for me was when my line manager let me know that a senior manager had questioned my ‘value’ to the organisation (I was on contract). To his credit, my boss was uncomfortable with the conversation and let me know it pretty quickly; the observation he was delivering was not his own.

But he quickly slipped into the management vernacular; “you need to stamp your authority on that team” and “you need to make your mark” and other such platitudes. Although I thought him a good leader and he had been fairly open with me it was difficult for him to talk to me directly about the issues and easy to slip into oblique management-speak.

It reminded me of the time another boss told me that a true sign of leadership was “doing what needed to be done for the organisation in spite of what you, personally, believe.”

Errr… no.

Saying a thing does not make it true.

True leadership is standing up for your principles and being honest, despite whatever temporary context the organisation finds itself in. Or better yet, finding a way to align the needs of your subordinates and those of the organisation, causing the least amount of trauma to each.

But enough of the aside, I’m sure as a leader and a manager I’ve committed the same sin – the sin of oblique evasion. The sin of avoiding the difficult issue instead of dealing with it. The sin of alluding to the problem, the elephant in the room instead of pointing at it and saying, “We have a pachyderm problem!”

The message being transmitted in my example, was that I wasn’t pulling my weight, I wasn’t being a team player, I wasn’t present.

And it was true – I was disengaged.

I was involved in a project that was clearly going nowhere and there was little I could do about it. I had tried what I could and got nowhere and I was out of options. I could see the iceberg coming and felt little need to reshuffle deck chairs to appear busy.

It’s not that I wasn’t eager to fix the problem if I could, I thought the customer deserved better, it’s just that I had run out of options. Instead of rallying me or discussing my lack of participation directly I got vague allusions to how I should generate the perception of participation; instead of addressing the cause we were content to treat the symptoms.

And this, I think was endemic in the project and one (of many) of the reasons for its failure.

Rather than tackle the problems head on and expose them, we were content to refer to them obliquely, to imply what should be done and to hint at the right course of action.

Hence the prevalence of guilt.

Now guilt is a powerful motivator. According to Harvard Business Review, guilty people make better managers; they are more sensitive to feelings and responsibility than others and families and parents use it all the time to influence the behaviour of others.

But there is a long term, darker side to guilt as this article from Psychology Today demonstrates: Mild as the poisonous effects of most guilt trips are, over the long term, their toxicity can build and cause significant strains and emotional distance.

So in any situation where you’re trying to form a bond, to form a team, guilt will give you short term gain but a long term loss.

Brutal honesty on the other hand often gets you a short term loss but a long term gain.

Which would you rather have?

What do I do next?

One problem I often encounter in business (startup or otherwise) is a lack of clarity.

As I detailed in an earlier post linking your strategic goals to your day to day activities is essential to stay on track, to stay focussed and ultimately to deliver. And while people are often able to construct a set of high level goals and link low level tasks to them it often becomes confused as complexity emerges and the links become tangled and obscure and people lose their way.

At any given point in the day people turn to me and say “What should I be doing next?”

My answer, not surprisingly, is a Lean one.

The simple version of what to do when you get lost is to consult a map. Your strategy is the map and when you’re in doubt about what to do next you should return to it to consider how best to achieve your goal. But that belies a complexity that often clouds peoples minds when it comes to business – the business map is not flat and one dimensional with a ‘true north’ – it is complex and messy and multi-dimensional.

To get back on track (even with a map) you need to know where you are now.

There’s no point in looking at the map if you can’t place yourself on it, orient correctly and interpret the map as a model of the terrain.

Once you have found yourself on the map you need to look for your destination. Validate that your destination is still the correct one. Has the situation changed? Should you change to goal to reflect the change in your circumstances. To stretch the metaphor, is there a storm coming and should you seek shelter immediately instead of heading for a distant port?

Now that you have reaffirmed your destination, look at what lies between you and the destination and figure out the best way to get there. Don’t assume that what you have been doing works best. Look for alternate routes, possible pitfalls and obstacles – identify what is going to stop you getting there.

And finally, develop a set of theories or options to overcome those obstacles. 

Then it’s just up to you to try it out, see what works and adapt and overcome.

So if you ever find yourself asking “What do I do next?”, the method is simple:

  1. Current state : review where you are and how you got their
  2. Ideal state / goal / next horizon : determine where you are going, ask yourself if it has changed?
  3. Identify the gap : what is the next step you need to get to your destination?
  4. Identify the problem : what’s going to stop completing that step?
  5. Propose solutions : theorise how you might overcome the problems
  6. Experiment, measure results, learn, adapt and overcome
  7. Repeat with the next obstacle


The Marines Warfighting Doctrine

I often turn to military metaphors when I’m trying to explain management concepts.

The reason is simple: the military have been doing this a lot longer than most industries and they operate in a far more chaotic, critical and life threatening environment than most enterprises.

Most management translations of military theory are dead and bleached versions of some Sun-Tsu aphorism, quoted out of context and with dubious relevance.

So I thought I’d try and go back to some original sources and see if the metaphors made sense in a modern management context.

One of the most common issues I see in business is the disconnect between strategy and it’s execution. In fact many executives can’t even distinguish strategy from it’s execution.

Here’s what the Marine’s war-fighting manual has to say on the subject of strategy and tactics:

The highest level is the strategic level… Strategy involves establishing goals, assigning forces, providing assets, and imposing conditions on the use of force in theaters of war. Strategy derived from political and policy objectives must be clearly understood to be the sole authoritative basis for all operations.

Translation : Strategy involves establishing goals, assigning resources and setting rules. Every activity must contribute to achieving the strategy, which must in turn support the reason for an organisation’s existence.

The lowest level is the tactical level… The tactical level also includes the technical application of combat power, which consists of those techniques and procedures for accomplishing specific tasks within a tactical action. These in- clude the call for fire, techniques of fire, the operation of weap- ons and equipment, and tactical movement techniques. There is a certain overlap between tactics and techniques. We make the point only to draw the distinction between tactics, which re- quires judgment and creativity, and techniques and procedures, which generally involves repetitive routine.

Translation : Day to day activity consists of accomplishing specific tasks using techniques, procedures and tools. Some tasks require judgement and creativity and other tasks require repetitive routine.

The operational level of war links the strategic and tacical levels. It is the use of tactical results to attain strategic objectives. The operational level includes deciding when, where, and under what conditions to engage the enemy in bat- tle—and when, where, and under what conditions to refuse bat- tle in support of higher aims. Actions at this level imply a broader dimension of time and space than actions at the tactical level.

Translation: To link strategy with day-to-day activities requires organisation. It requires choices to be made about what activities to engage in to achieve strategic objectives and what tools and techniques should be deployed in what situation.

Pretty good so far.

How about decision making? Another key weakness in business.

Time is a critical factor in effective decisionmaking—often the most important factor. A key part of effective decisionmak- ing is realizing how much decision time is available and mak- ing the most of that time. In general, whoever can make and implement decisions consistently faster gains a tremendous, of- ten decisive advantage. Decisionmaking in execution thus be- comes a time-competitive process, and timeliness of decisions becomes essential to generating tempo. Timely decisions de- mand rapid thinking with consideration limited to essential fac- tors. In such situations, we should spare no effort to accelerate our decisionmaking ability. That said, we should also recognize those situations in which time is not a limiting factor—such as deliberate planning situations—and should not rush our deci- sions unnecessarily.

We should base our decisions on awareness rather than on mechanical habit. That is, we act on a keen appreciation for the essential factors that make each situation unique instead of from conditioned response. We must have the moral courage to make tough decisions in the face of uncertainty—and to accept full responsibility for those decisions—when the natural incli- nation would be to postpone the decision pending more com- plete information. To delay action in an emergency because of incomplete information shows a lack of moral courage. We do not want to make rash decisions, but we must not squander op- portunities while trying to gain more information.

Finally, since all decisions must be made in the face of un- certainty and since every situation is unique, there is no perfect solution to any battlefield problem. Therefore, we should not agonize over one. The essence of the problem is to select a promising course of action with an acceptable degree of risk and to do it more quickly than our foe. In this respect, “a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan exe- cuted next week.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

But surely the military situation is different? Military structures and discipline allow for a level of command and control that is impossible in a fluid, commercial situation… right?

Anyone who believes that has no concept of what war fighting is actually like.

Autonomy and initiative are essential to military operations and flexible fighting forces like the Marines understand it better than any ‘agile’ commercial organisation:

There are two parts to any mission: the task to be accom- plished and the reason or intent behind it. The intent is thus a part of every mission. The task describes the action to be taken while the intent describes the purpose of the action. The task denotes what is to be done, and sometimes when and where; the intent explains why. Of the two, the intent is predominant. While a situation may change, making the task obsolete, the in- tent is more lasting and continues to guide our actions. Under- standing the intent of our commander allows us to exercise initiative in harmony with the commander’s desires.

The military may not be a perfect mirror for modern commercial enterprises, but by ignoring the lessons of their history, you will be doomed to repeat them.


Provoke the Elephant

I came across the wonderful metaphor of change as the “rider-and-the-elephant” in Dan & Chip Heath’s “Making it Stick”.

The metaphor originally comes from “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt and

It goes something like this :

Your unconscious, emotional mind is like an elephant.  Your conscious, rational mind is like the rider on the elephant. While the elephant is calm, the rider can direct the elephant. When the elephant is upset then the rider just has to hang on and go where the elephant wants to go.

Or as Dan & Chip puts it :

If you’re contemplating change, the Elephant is the one who gets things done. To make progress towards a goal, whether it’s noble or crass, require the energy and drive of the Elephant. And this strength is the mirror image of the Rider’s great weakness: spinning his wheels. The Rider tends to overthink and overanalyse things.

This metaphor came to mind while I was talking to a colleague about a coaching problem. We were talking about how to change someone’s mindset and I was advocating provoking an emotional response. ‘Until they feel it, they won’t interalise it’ I said, but my colleague was dubious.

His approach was effectively to soothe the Elephant so that he could convince the Rider.

But, the thought ocurred to me, what if you’re short of time? Or what if the Rider is predisposed to rationalise their existing behaviour or if they are cleverer or more stubborn than you?

Provoke the Elephant.

Jab it with a stick. Beat it. Bang drums. Seduce it with peanuts.

Psychologists may cringe at this, but I find people to be more receptive to new ideas after you’ve broken down their rational defences with a bit of emotional catharsis.


Stages of a Startup

The major stages of a (Lean) Startup – from discovery to exit


The Kaizen Life

How to improve your life, one experiment at a time

Let's Reach Success

Habits, purpose and a little bit of zen.


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Lean insights

This site is to share some of my key learnings from several years of practicing Lean. Hope you find them valuable! - Prasad Saranjame

Leanovation Agile @ cOemerge

Collaboration makes best solutions emerge

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