Archive for August 29, 2007

Oblique Strategies for Startups 1

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb, skmurphy, Startups

Here are ten strategies to help get you and your team unstuck. The first line is the oblique strategy, in some cases I have added additional commentary of my own.

  1. A line has two sides.
    I think of Kurt Lewin and his force field analysis where the team collaborates on constructing a diagram to represent the forces holding the system at it’s current equilibrium point (keeping the situation stuck and preventing it from advancing in the direction you would like it to go). You draw a vertical line down the middle of a piece of paper (or a flip chart or a white board depending upon how many folks are involved). you then draw arrows representing the forces working in your favor and against the change you want to take. Each force (arrow) is assigned a “strength” either by it’s length or putting an explicit number next to it. Initially most teams focus on strengthening the forces working in your direction, but it’s often as fruitful to consider how to diminish or neutralize the forces working against you. Sometimes you can reframe the problem so that some of the forces that were working against you are now working with your (“Don’t fight forces, us them” advised Buckminster Fuller).
  2. Abandon desire
    I think it’s as important to let go of fear as greed.
  3. Abandon normal instructions
    Startup teams can be too quick to reach for this one. Most successful breakthrough teams don’t “break all of the rules,” just the ones that are truly getting in their way, and they understand the risks and likely consequences. I think it’s only fair to consider this once you actually have normal instructions for your situation. Don’t reach back to the way you did things at a larger firm, come to an explicit decision about what “normal instructions” are so that you know what you are abandoning. This is a variation on the observation “if you don’t have a plan, how do you know what you are changing?”
  4. Accept advice
    If you don’t have an advisory board or at least an informal kitchen cabinet, use this situation to start to assemble one.
  5. Back up a few steps. What else could you have done?
    If you are relying purely on your memory, now is the time so start keeping decision records. Russell Ackoff suggests that a decision record incorporate the following items (and that it’s more important to document when you decide not to do something so that you lay the groundwork for tracking “errors of commission”). This explicitly lays the groundwork for a postmortem at the expiration of the time frame to see what actually did occur and what can be learned from it.

    1. A brief statement that justifies decisions, including likely effects and outcomes and the time frame that they should occur.
    2. The assumptions that the decision was based on.
    3. The information, knowledge, and understanding that went into the decision.
    4. Who made the decision, how it was made, and when.
  6. Be dirty
    “Go Ugly Early” a product marketing aphorism, author unknown
    “Early if Not Elegant” John Morgridge‘s version, as in “Cisco will be early if not elegant.”
  7. Be extravagant
    Waste money to save time, waste time to save money, waste either or both to improve morale (or customer satisfaction). In the early 90’s Cisco chartered a plane to get a part to a company with a network that was down at a price that exceeded the maintenance on one box for a year (but not the whole maintenance contract), it sent a message to customers we were truly committed to their success. It was an extravagance, but one that underscored a brand promise.
  8. Breathe more deeply
    It has a calming effect and gets more oxygen to your brain for clearer thinking.
  9. Change ambiguities to specifics
    If you have deferred a decision try and set a value on one or more particulars you have been avoiding just to see if you can at least find a feasible solution.
  10. Change specifics to ambiguities
    Sometimes a team gets locked on a particular process or price point or other decision that in fact doesn’t have to be made today, or you may be arguing pricing something at $50 vs. $55 when the real price should be in the range of $4-8 or $75-125 and you are getting prematurely anchored to a particular value that’s not important instead of asking what customer benefit(s) impact or are driven by this variable?\

Oblique Strategies grew out of the ongoing collaboration of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, they converted notes on rules of thumb for how to break deadlocks and resolve creative dilemmas into a card deck. An excerpt from the introduction to the 2001 edition

“These cards evolved from our separate observations of the principles underlying what we are doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, sometimes they were formulated. They can be used as a pack (a set of possibilities being continuously reviewed in the mind) or by drawing a single card from a shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case the card is trusted even if it appropriateness is quite unclear. They are not final, as new ideas will present themselves, and others will become self-evident.”

Kevin Kelly lists them as cool tools, Greg Taylor has a fan site for them, and a superset list is available at h2g2.

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