The Lightbulb Alone is Useless

Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit (makers of Quicken and QuickBooks software), felt that the problem to solve wasn’t making good accounting software, but something else entirely: “The greatest competitor … was not in the industry. It was the pencil. The pencil is a tough and resilient substitute. Yet the entire industry had overlooked it.” … Even if [Cook's] competition had more talented problem solvers, engineers, or designers, his creative framing of the problem gave him an advantage.

Scott Berkun, The Myths of Innovation, pg. 130

We assume that those who win innovation wars are either faster or smarter than the competition. We assume that the winners either work smarter, harder and longer, or are born brilliant. (Talent is overrated, though.) It’s actually those who frame the question correctly that usually win.

Hard work is one part of the equation, and so is smarts—the old “smart and gets things done” adage—but the greatest factor leading to successful innovation is focusing on the right question. Those who look at the problem differently often win.

It’s asking the right question that’s difficult. The best questions take imagination. The right question doesn’t just hit you—Berkun also debunks this myth in The Myths of Innovationit takes the hard work of asking the wrong questions first. We usually have to think of all the wrong ways to do something, and thus eliminate possibilities, before we attempt to innovate.

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The Writer’s Warm Up

When I workout, I’m not very good about warming up. I have a tendency to go hard and fast. (If you knew me, you would likely say that my workout method is characteristic of my personality.) But when I don’t warm up, the next day is more difficult. I have learned this lesson as a musician, but I have not learned it as an athlete. I have also not learned it as a writer or leader.

When I go hard and fast, I’m ultimately slowed down. My creativity level eventually drops. This makes it difficult to finish a long article in the amount of time I would like to spend on it. It also makes it hard to keep up the energy levels required to lead everyday. It’s hard to be positive when you’re exhausted.

When I drum, I spend time to tune the drum kit and warm up my hands. I stretch. I start slow, before I go for speed. I start with simple rhythms, before playing something complex. I’m contemplative and intentional. It took me years to learn this. It sounds simple now, but it’s not. Warming up is also a discipline.

When I spend time to write a blog post, or a memo-style email, before starting a large project, I’m actually more efficient. The same (likely) holds true for all projects. It goes against our nature to be “off task” before being “on task.” In all actuality, though, a warm up writing exercise is intentional and “on task.” (We’re not talking about checking Facebook or Twitter after all.) It helps us mentally prepare for being more efficient than we would be otherwise. It engages the part of our brain that we’re about to use.

Now what if your warm up also had a purpose? This warm up blog post does. (I wrote it before beginning work on the Bible study I write for Bible Study Magazine every two months.)

So here’s to warming up, like an athlete or a musician. Be contemplative and intentional. You will actually get more done that way. How do you warm up?

Six Myths about Building Relationships

“The follow-up” is the simplest form of business. You meet someone, you get their contact info, and then you contact them later. Yet, most people don’t follow-up. Here are six myths about building relationships.

  1. They will be responsive when I call needing/wanting something. They won’t. You will seem like someone who abuses relationships, even if you don’t. You will seem like you don’t care about them as a person, or about their company. You will be ignored or brushed off.
  2. I will have time later. Later usually doesn’t come. You will be busy later, just like you’re busy today.
  3. They will remember me. Will they? Do you remember everyone you meet? Probably not. Continue Reading…

The Agreeable Editor: A Walking Paradox

I recently heard an editor say, “There’s only one phrase you need to know in the editing business, ‘Okay.’ ” That seems fine on face value, but being agreeable doesn’t get you far. You want to advocate for the audience, not the writer.

Writers don’t know best. I sound like a zealous editor when I say that, but don’t forget that I’m a writer too. I expect the people who edit my work to know what’s best for the audience. (And yes, someone edits everything I publish, outside of blog posts. Everyone needs an editor.) I expect my editors to know my audience better than I do. I expect them to challenge me.

I stopped editing for a company at one point because they thought I was too aggressive. I figured that they thought I knew best, and that’s why they hired me. I was wrong. They wanted me to gently coach the writer into reducing the word count, and carry out the writer’s will. I thought they wanted me to translate the author’s words–to make the writer applicable, not make the writer happy. In retrospect, I could have been clearer on objectives, eliminated assumptions, and spent more time building trust with the writer. I’m not sure if it would have made a difference in this scenario, but it would have been worth the try. Nonetheless, I learned something–here’s what I learned.

Most writers don’t want a real editor; they want someone to fix their grammar. It turns out that most people are not interested in creating a book that people will read front to back; they’re interested in expressing their thoughts. And, they value every one. Who can blame them?

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Being Awesome, at Everything

What would you want a leader to say to you? I want to follow leaders that allow me to lead. I want them to expect me to lead, prompt me to lead, and tell me to confront and question their decisions. This is what I would want a leader to say to me.

I want you to be awesome, at everything. That means that investing in you is top priority for me. If you ever wonder, should I ask about this? Should I take up time with this question? Should I ask for feedback? The answer is yes, yes and more yes. Learn now, not later. I would take now over later any time.

Challenge me. Confront me. Tell me why I’m wrong and how you can do it better. Then, do it better. Own it. Make it awesome.

You being awesome means all of us being awesome—including me. This is a linchpin team. We’re the elite. And seriously, if you still wonder what that means, read Linchpin, please.

When it comes time for your review, I want to give you only excellent marks. Excellence everywhere, in all categories, means we’re all excellent. I want to announce to the company that you’re an incredible asset to our team and the company as a whole. I want to tell people on tours that without you we could not do what we do.

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One Easy Way to Identify Your Audience

When I start writing a new article, I ask: What’s the word count? It’s not because I’m a minimalist; word counts tell me about my audience. And my audience indicates the breadth of coverage of the article. Why give someone 1,000 words when they want 150?

The audience of a lexicon or dictionary is very different from the audience of an academic journal. The audience of a magazine desires less coverage than the readers of a manifesto. Likewise, someone reading a textbook or grammar desires something different from someone reading a handbook, or book of tips.

Word counts matter for more reasons than we probably acknowledge. This seems basic, and perhaps even trivial, but we often forget this. Know your audience. Give them the amount of content they want to read.

I know the audience of this blog. And that’s why I’m going to stop writing now, at 150 words.

 

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One Step Away from Fired: Mediocre

Mediocrity kills greatness. A job that is “good enough” is not good enough. Working “hard enough” is not hard enough. Mediocre is one step away from fired.

I know people who were good at their jobs who got fired. They weren’t great, but they certainly weren’t bad. They spent years getting “good enough” at what they did, but not enough time focusing on how good they could be.

In Paul Arden’s It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be, he says that your goals have to be outrageous. Don’t make your goal merely getting the promotion you want, or about the success of your next product or idea; make your goals crazy.

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Post-Traumatic Ship Syndrome

Post-Traumatic Ship Syndrome (PTSS). A real problem in the real world. Primarily caused by under-preparing, escapism prompted by a nearing ship date, or poor planning.

PTSS Symptoms:

  • Afraid of what “they” might think
  • Hyperventilating
  • Suddenly remembering all the things you forgot to include
  • Worry and anxiety
  • Wanting to change a process, function, or premise at the last-minute
  • A full inbox, and too many sent messages
  • Angry with your publisher, your boss, your editor, or your colleagues
  • Very afraid of what “they” might think

Most likely people to suffer from PTSS:

  • Those who don’t ship often
  • People obsessed with the details
  • Bureaucrats
  • People who love the system

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Editing is Translating

Editing is translating—translating someone else’s thoughts and technical language into something practical and useful.

Someone recently told me that knowing Hebrew will help me read government documents because they’re written in a foreign language. Academics and lawyers alike don’t write in English; they compose documents in specialist-English. Even specialists don’t like to read the work of other specialists. That’s why they hire graduate students, paralegals, assistants and interns to summarize things for them. They want the raw data. So why do we hide the raw data behind bad writing? Because it’s safe.

If you can’t understand what I have written, you can’t argue with me. If I’ve modified one phrase five times, how will you know what I’m really saying?

Unapproachable is unhelpful, unless being unapproachable gives you and your work clout. In that scenario, it’s job security.

I fight this battle every day. I take the words of other people and I translate them. This makes what I write, edit and publish easy to attack. You know exactly what I’m saying. You know exactly what hills I’m willing to die on. And if you don’t, then I haven’t done my job.

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Your Elevator Pitch about You: 7 Tips

You never know when someone important will ask you, “Tell me a little bit about you—your background, etc.” You don’t want to freeze, look stupid or forget to say the right things. You also don’t want to ramble because that’s boring. You want to state just the facts. (Who can argue with the facts?) If you are really awesome, the facts will speak for themselves.

I recently spent some time developing my elevator pitch about me—my 60-second pitch about who I am. I have one for Bible Study Magazine, one about my company, and one about my publishing projects. But I didn’t have one about me: the things that define me.

Sounds very existential: Who are you? Seriously, though, everyone needs an elevator pitch. If it doesn’t fit into an elevator ride, then you need to edit it. (With the help of my wife, I edited mine.)

I learned seven things by editing my elevator pitch:

  1. Transition words are important. Try “In addition,” “And,” “During that time,” “But,” and “Also.” Transition words are your mental cue. They also help you be succinct.
  2. Use a narrative arc. Tell the story of your life: some conflicts, challenges, climaxes and successes. Also try adding a failure that you learned from, or a failure that you turned into a success. Continue Reading…
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