Principles

While concrete practices and tools are ultimately the only way to make tangible changes, there are valuable principles to guide you along the way.

Infinite improvement

Every day individuals and organizations seek-out, establish, and rely on “best practices.” As Taiicho Ohno, originator of the Toyota Production System declared:

“There is something called standard work, but standards should be changed constantly. Instead, if you think of the standard as the best you can do, it’s all over. The standard work is only a baseline for doing further kaizen [change for the better].”

It’s best to view any current “best practices” as only the best at the time with the possibility of improving them in the future especially in situations that are different, even if only to a small degree. Adopt a mindset of infinite improvement in which you constantly:

  • Embrace challenges
  • Learn from feedback
  • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others

while working in such a way that you:

  • Prioritize making great decisions sooner, instead of perfect decisions in the future, then iterating and improving
  • Prioritize timely delivery when it’s important, even if you must improvise to deal with unexpected constraints

Seek simplicity

Increasing complexity is a challenge. Systems and practices that are complex are harder to adopt and maintain and their fragility can lead to catastrophe. The antidote is to place a greater value on simplicity. The good news is that there has been a growing interest in great design and notable instances in which strong, specific solutions have won out over weak, general ones. Big organizations are trying to become simpler and/or smaller in the pursuit of speed and agility. Products are become more customizable or simpler for people who want less. “De-featured” products are often created for niche or emerging markets. As the great jazz musician Miles Davis demonstrated with his sparse, lean style of playing the trumpet: Less is often more (more or less).

Balance individuality and teamwork

Creativity at scale requires a balance between diverse individuals and the uniqueness they each bring to a team, and collaboration between those individuals. As Scott Berkun wrote about at length in his book The Myths of Innovation, history tends to attribute notable work of innovation to individuals. Yet the concept of lone inventors is largely a myth with great work rarely accomplished in complete isolation. Even those who appear to innovate alone have almost certainly drawn on the work of others from the past. We all stand on the shoulders of giants in one way or another. Teamwork not simply attractive because of the simple increase in output when you have many versus one at work, but because of the synergy that can result especially when there is diversity in the team. The truth is that some work is done best alone and some work is done best in teams and finding the right balance between the two is critical. In this model, the most effective people are those who can move fluidly between leading and following much as jazz musicians constantly do.

Reduce friction

It was the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz who wrote about friction in his treatise On War:

“Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war … Countless minor incidents—the kind you can never really foresee—combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal … Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper … Friction, as we choose to call it, is the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.”

It’s all about the timing: Whether you’re someone who’s always coming up with new ideas, or a strong collaborator always ready to help others, or someone who’s better at starting things than finishing them, it’s not that hard to end up with too many concurrent efforts underway. With every additional simultaneous initiative comes the overhead to context switch between them. In these situations, it will take longer to finish any one of these projects. Instead a better strategy might to be focus on one effort and get it finished sooner. Doing that might also lead to conclusions that affect how other initiatives are undertaken, if at all. Prioritizing, scheduling, and doing the right things at the right time is so vitally important.

Use good process to speed things up: Process has an understandably bad reputation because so many companies are dying under the weight of the processes they’ve adopted in the hope of controlling and predicting everything. The truth is that there’s good process and bad process. Good process speeds things up instead of slowing things down and can be helpful especially at scale.

Prioritize the important decisions: Making decisions can be hard especially when it involves a lot of analysis or many people. Focus on the decisions that are hard or costly to reverse and take risks on the other decisions with lower impact.

Be honest about shortcuts: Shortcuts are part of being creative and making the most of your resources. It’s okay to take shortcuts as long as you know when you are taking them, the cost of taking them, if they need to be tended to later, and that you follow-up with that work at the right time in the future.