[Update on “Remarkable Teams” series]

I will be continuing the series on building remarkable teams but am pausing to insert some articles on using Agile methodology as a way to manage your organization’s workflow. Agile can be adopted to many products and services other than software development. I am getting requests for this so I will do my best to comply. 🙂


Success Through Failure

Failure is not our obstacle. Fear of failure is…

Today’s business landscape over flows with the startup ideas and efforts of entrepreneurs. Most of these hope filled endeavors will fail to take root and grow into sustaining businesses.

As an entrepreneur, the likelihood that you will fail with your current business is significant. The power of math tells you this. Scott A. Shane, professor of entrepreneurial studies at Case Western writes in the NY Times, “According to U.S. Census data, only 48.8 percent of the new establishments started between 1977 and 2000 were alive at age five.”  In other words, half of new business will fail. This is the most optimistic statistic. The numbers for unfinanced startup ventures is worse. But you can use failure as a resource to move you forward.

The benefits to failing faster and fearlessly

My hypothesis is an entrepreneur who can fail better will a have greater chance of success. Additionally, even in the absence of material success the entrepreneur will gain an enhanced experience of life and be more likely to contribute to the success of others.

Benefits of failing faster and fearlessly can include:

  • Learning to be attached to the problem you are solving while remaining flexible about the solution
  • Kill points, rapid deployment, and real-time feedback allows for quicker pivots and more efficient redeployment of resources, but above all, it cuts losses faster
  • Reduced collateral damage to friends and family
  • Failing with less physical and mental damage (raising the possibility of stress free failing)

Learning to see the value of failure can also lead to removing the stigma around failure.

Overcoming stigma requires a mental reset of the associations and language surrounding failure. Here are three examples:

  1. To attempt something difficult and come short does not make you a loser but rather brave.
  2. To admit when your resources are insufficient and you are at a material end is not ignominy but instead a chance to be humble.
  3. Similarly repeated attempts at success are not futile if they represent persistence and patience.

Reevaluating and repurposing the language around failure is not a simple act of spin. You must reframe the negative concept as a meaningfully positive experience. So you don’t just take a word like ‘losing’ and mask it with the hyperbole of ‘winning’. Instead you must see a so-called negative tag as a chance to reassess and make room for innovation.

Study, discuss, even come to embrace failure

Sharing data and insights related to your failures is crucial, and so is learning from the mistakes of others. You should reach out to those who have failed with the knowledge that they have something of value to share.

As a community of entrepreneurs we should see to it that repositories of post-mortems are built. Post-mortems are accounts reviewing the rise and fall of a business endeavor.  In addition, regular meetings and even conventions should be held to dissect, discuss, and discover what treasures can be mined from failure.

Reassessing and reframing failure is the psychological shift you need to create higher functioning organizations. There are myriad ways to build highly functional organizations with a culture that engenders improved perspectives and behaviors. One of these perspectives is the value and growth potential of failure.

Part of this potential is that by failing faster you learn faster. An example of this is the act-analyze and adjust methodology. By ‘Analyze’, I mean scientific testing. The idea is to blend creative vision-the ‘act’-with scientific method to get a stronger balance of imagination and practicality. Be willing to make and see mistakes faster and you will gain better insights.

Begin to make this shift of perspective by considering that we need failure as much as we need success.  Not only do we need it, it is an inseparable aspect of material growth and success.

Some people incorrectly assume that failure is something that should or can be eliminated altogether.  Failure is the flip side of success. Failure and success predict each other as steadfastly as boy predicts girl and light predicts dark. The idea that failure is somehow an option waiting to be eradicated is naïve. Be courageous and honest and accept that failure and success define each other and are part of the growth and evolution of humans.

Don’t bother trying to dispatch failure to never-never land. You are better off redefining failure and your relationship to it. As a result you will be able to see failure as a source of your momentum forward. When you embrace what you once feared you will discover new insights. Courage is just one of them.

Here are some steps you can take right away:

  • Search the net for stories of failure, especially for post-mortems of startups that crashed and burned (see link below)
  • Keep a journal and timeline of your own “failures” and review it from time to time
  • Form a meetup in your community where other entrepreneurs come together regularly and discuss their failures
  • Become more agile:  have regular big picture sessions where you evaluate progress or the lack thereof and be ready to pivot, repurpose, reboot
  • Establish clear kill points for constructive endings. Knowing when to cut losses and move on can help sustain your reputation, reduce damage to stakeholders, and leave you in a better place for the next step

Your business is an extension of you. Use your business as an opportunity to grow as a person and push the boundaries of your consciousness. Question your assumptions, challenge yourself to be courageous and do what is difficult. By learning to focus more on your efforts and less on your outcomes you will most certainly be a success, even in failure.

Inset –

ChubbyBrain.com has an excellent list of post mortems for you to check out at http://www.chubbybrain.com/blog/startup-failure-post-mortem/

They also compiled a list of the top reasons these companies failed including:

  1. Being inflexible and not actively seeking or using customer feedback – Tunnel vision and not gathering user feedback are fatal flaws for most startups.
  2. No market need – Choosing to tackle problems that are interesting to solve rather than those that serve a market need was often cited as a reason for failure.  Companies should tackle market problems not technical problems.
  3. Not the right team- A diverse team with different skill sets was often cited as being critical to the success of a startup company. In some cases, the founding team wished they had more checks and balances.
  4. Poor marketing – Knowing your target audience and knowing how to get their attention and convert them to leads and ultimately customers is one of the most important skills of a successful business.  Find someone who enjoys creating and finding distribution channels and developing business relationship for the company is a key need that startups should ensure they fill.
  5. Ran out of cash – The question of how should you spend the money was a frequent conundrum and reason for failure cited by failed startups.  The decision on whether to spend significantly upfront to get the product off the group or develop gradually over time is a tough act to balance.
  6. No biz model – 1 of 4 failure post-mortems cite the lack of a business model as a reason for failure.
  7. Product mistimed – If you release your product too early, users may write it off as not good enough and getting them back may be difficult if their first impression of you was negative.  And if you release your product too late, you may have missed your window of opportunity. “This requires balance
  8. Lack of passion and domain expertise – product can be created that the founders are expert at but the industry is not something they can be bothered learning about so they don’t really understand what the customers want from the product.
  9. Failure to pivot – not pivoting away from a bad product, a bad hire, a bad decision, etc quickly enough often cited as a reason for failure
  10. User ‘unfriendly’ product
  11. Pricing issues
  12. Didn’t use network – Whether it was for advice or introductions, almost 16% of the startup post-mortems stated that the team did not use their connections well enough, which led to failure.
  13. Disharmony on team – acrimony isn’t limited to the founding team,  things go bad with an investor, and  it can get ugly
  14. Lost focus – Getting sidetracked with all the ‘could-bes’ was cited numerous times as a contributor to failure. Focus on one product and get it out there.
  15. Burnout – Work life balance is not something that startup founders often get and so the risk of burning out is high.  The ability to cut your losses where necessary and re-direct your efforts when you see a dead end is also connected to having a diverse team.
  16. Out competed
  17. No financing
  18. Bad location

Do you recognize any of these in your business?

Tweet, Share, and Please Comment,

Atma ( http://askatma.com )

My next invention: an online school for management 3.0

Learn Management 3.0 to Optimize Your Business, Your People, Your World; using a new 10-point framework to create a culture of motivation, disruption, and implementation.

Science, technology, and culture are constantly evolving. As a result rules change, and new opportunities emerge. Keeping up is hard.  The Atman Academy makes it easier.

HumanProficient.com is an online school for business owners and operators – All 10 components will be taught as part of an online training environment that focuses on cutting edge management and organizational tools. The school itself is part of ongoing research projects to continually improve the framework.

To view a presentation visit here

Be sure to give me your feedback!

I am currently looking for investors and an amazing design partner who is expert in UX/AI.

How to hack a management system [brief talk]

[A 5 minute talk given at LA Hackers on April 23, 2011 at Coloft]

My name is Atma

I am an industrial psychologist

That’s kind of like a project manager on academic steroids

I specialize in the psychology of organizations and am currently working on my PhD in this topic

Part of the power of organizational psychology is that it leverages emotional energy.

Emotional energy comes from human desire, those things you want deeply or strongly, and it is a pervasive phenomenon.

Put another way I traffic in disruptive ideas that can make people better, higher functioning, and happier

I do this by focusing on changes in the work environment rather than singling out the individual

Better environments create better humans; better humans create a better society

I believe we can create a better world by changing the way we interact in daily life.

My goal is to teach whoever is ready to re-engineer their business, startup, or organization.

The suite of solutions I work with can be used to make any business or team more effective (consequently more profitable)

Some of the tools in this suite include:

  1. Screening partners, and hires with face reading and other cutting edge profiling techniques including clique psychology
  2. Wiring in innovation as a cultural behavior
  3. Game theory applications – tapping into mutualistic dynamics
  4. Training for charisma, confidence, and presentation skills
  5. Human centric design based on my model of generative grammar in organizations
  6. Hacking your management system
  7. The role of discipline in forging leaders
  8. Training to be comfortable and confident in any social situation
  9. Repurposing stress – training to thrive amidst chaos
  10. Super Group Networks
  11. XY cluster companies – a new  type of agglomeration
  12. Changing the communication model,

Here is a simple example of one way to hack a management system…

To make a meaningful change in the way an organization functions you need to figure out what is the generative grammar of that business or group. It’s like understanding the nature of code at the deepest structural level in a massive program written 30 or 40 years ago. You can similarly assume that your work environment is like an antiquated system riddled with legacy code. Only instead of the byzantine application of a formal language you are dealing with emotional needs, cultural expectations, societal mores, all operating in an invisible and impossibly complex array.

But if you can change the underlying grammar or code you change the way humans behave. This is partly because humans have enormous plasticity or capacity to adapt.

For example say we all worked together and somebody came in and said I will pay each of you a significant bonus for every month you show a demonstrable positive change in your health stats. Now I know from previous studies about how many of you would take advantage of that offer. Often it would be those of you who need it the least.

But let’s say I came in and said I will pay each of you the same bonus for the improvements shown by a randomly assigned coworker, as opposed to your own improvements (which would be tied to someone else’s bonus.)

What kind of shift do you imagine would occur in the way we all interact? Suddenly I have a vested interest in your well being. I will be paying attention to what you eat, encouraging you to be more active, maybe invite you to my gym 3 times a week. And you might be inclined to respond because you are equally concerned with getting your assignee on the right track.

So you see in making one simple adjustment I have altered the generative grammar of our environment and consequently we are all behaving differently.

I am currently involved in a private research project, where I come into small businesses and observe and collect data on the organizational dynamics. It’s free to the company and I always share my findings with them, which is always eye-opening and instructive. If you know any companies that would like to apply for participation please let me know.

My contact information is on the handout I have provided.

Thank you

3 stages of increasing creativity in the workplace

Stage one: The approach

Theater of Constraints: great creativity and design flow from an accurate understanding of your limitations. By limitations you should distinguish between personal and material. Personal limitations are meant to be challenged and tested (at least within reason.) Material limitations are about the resources you have available. Material resources include, time, capital, space, and ability. Understanding material limitations can require a surprisingly large amount of individual and institutional honesty. But this rigorous honesty is the first discipline of the Theater of Constraints.

The second discipline is designing and developing within those constraints. For example say you have an idea for an application/production that will cost $1000 and take two weeks. But you only have $500 and one week. Don’t ignore these limitations and say, “let’s do the best we can!” and push forward with your original plan. Most of the time if you do, you end up with either a crappy execution of the $1000 version (a $500 version), or an over budget project and someone should get fired.

This of course is an extreme simplification, but the idea is missing from many project management cycles. If you use the limitations of your resources as a design criterion you can often engender a whole new dimension of innovation. You can also avoid the type of scope creep that is usually generated by unseen psychological factors related to the aforementioned need for honesty.

Apply the discipline of learning to design backwards from an honest understanding of available resources to software development, product development, media creation, event planning and many other types of productions.

You can even apply this discipline to aspects of personal life, like goal setting. Let your motto be, “Dream forward, design backward.”

Stage two: Stimulating creative thinking

Regular once a week free association session: one person takes the lead by providing an idea or a scenario that is seemingly farfetched or unlikely in your industry. Others begin to riff or explore on the possibilities. It is like a big “what if?” conversation, the trick is that it has to hew to some level of reality and at the same time goes well past the boundaries of what has been thought to be possible in your particular industry.

Cross disciplinary training and stimulus: Whatever field you are in, once-a-month take your team on an educational/cultural outing to something that has nothing to do with your work. E.g. take a team of developers to tour an abattoir, take the human resource team to museum exhibit on ancient Egypt, or take legal on an outing to a flower show. It is important to make it a regular outing, and to really explore intriguing albeit unrelated subjects as a group.

Show and tell: one morning a week have team members or co-workers bring in an example of counter-culture that they have unearthed. Examples could come from art, comics, film, music, architecture, economics (weird black markets), music, media, etc…

The drift (le Derive): Take a work group or team on a once-a-quarter exploration of the city using no agenda whatsoever. Begin the day by walking or catching a bus in a direction based on the flip of a coin. If you are on a bus or a subway get off on a stop chosen by the roll of a pair of dice. Or use a single die to determine the number of block s you will walk. Follow somebody walking out of a coffee shop for 60 seconds see where it leads you. Visit buildings based on the salience of their architecture i.e. that means which building sticks out the most? Doing the derive right takes practice and a real sense of adventure. The goal is to learn to let the environment direct your next move rather any personal agenda.

Stage three: Improving brainstorming

Throw away good work: if you are brainstorming or creating various version of products or services to offer the public you have to go far enough in the brainstorming to so many ideas that you must discard some good ones if you are not throwing away good work you are not assured that what remains will be excellent.

Distance thinking: review current and future projects from a distance. For example imagine that the work you are doing is going to be placed in a time machine and sent 10 years what would you do different? Or imagine your work is going to be transported to an aboriginal culture on some faraway island how do you make sure it works? If your clients are geographically close to you imagine that they are in offices halfway around the world? How do you improve communication and help keep a sense of connection? Whatever the reality of your client relationships imagine something either opposite or radical and imaginatively different. Clients from another galaxy anyone?

Purposely do bad work: gather your team together and create the 10 worst ideas for moving your company forward. Have a vote for the winner or worst idea possible. Know go backwards through the list and talk about what it would take to make each idea actually work.

No brainstorming without solo prep work: Brainstorming in a group from an empty slate can be counterproductive, and cause people to fixate on the earliest ideas. Before every brainstorming session send out a memo explain the agenda or purpose of the session and tell al participant to come up with 12 distinct ideas to begin the session. This gives everyone a chance to work alone in their own heads before coming to the group environment and will increase dramatically the number of ideas being discussed.

[Bonus thought] Evaluating best efforts: an easy way to determine the value of an idea (that isn’t yours) is to look at it and see if you can honestly say, “I wish I’d thought of that.”

And finally remember that these practices won’t be deeply effective if they are applied piecemeal to a poor overall work environment (new patches on an old garment and all…). Be sure to evaluate your entire environment with ruthless honesty. See this article on simple ways to assess your organization.

Seven ways to assess the organizational fitness of your business

One of the keys to developing a lean (highly effective and efficient) management process in your company is by making regular assessments of its psychological infrastructure. Think of it like getting a regular check up of your company’s mental well-being.

Here are seven simple steps to you can apply to your own business based on principles of industrial/organizational psychology:

  1. Move about and observe your business as if you were an outsider.
  2. Question the why and the psychology behind all the behaviors that you see
  3. Take a survey of employees about work satisfaction, concerns, wishes, complaints. There are easy to use web-based tools like www.formstack.com that make setting up surveys easy and you can look at this simple pdf  for instructions on how to design a simple survey
  4. Look for patterns of dysfunction or disruption, record the frequency and intervals
  5. Look for the underlying mechanisms (psychological states) that create these negative patterns
  6. Explore alternative workplace dynamics in small 2-3 people discussions and then as you generate agreement increase the size of the groups.
  7. Develop a means of measuring and changes that you are going to make. Be clear about establishing baselines, benchmarks (goals), and the criteria for evaluating progress.

Eventually you will want a social scientist to come in and aid you in your organizational development. It takes an experienced industrial psychologist to properly help with something as complex as organizational development and you don’t want to tax your company resources doing a job that is better done by an outsider. Even so, these are some of the valuable steps you can take toward assessing and addressing organizational issues.

Please use the comment space below to share experiences you have had with assessing the effectiveness of your organization or post comments and questions.

 [photo credit]

Call for research participation – how functional is your workplace?

You can’t fix what you can’t see

Think about how cool it would be to have insight into the psychological dynamics present in your workplace. Psychological and operational insight can give you, as a company owner or CEO, fascinating and practical information that can be used to increase productivity, employee loyalty, retention, cooperation, etc…

As an industrial/organizational psychologist, working on my PhD, I am currently gathering data for a larger research project on productivity and employee interaction. I am looking for companies that will allow me to come in and analyze your culture. I would share my findings with you.

To take advantage of this chance and be part of this study you need to have a physical office space with at least 15 employees* under one roof. (There’s no limit in the other direction but if you’re a huge company you should consider a supporting grant 🙂 .) Your company should be in the tech, information services, or media sectors. You must also be located in either in greater Los Angeles, or the Bay area. (Use this formif you want to ask about eligibility).

Throughout this process your privacy and company trade practices will be kept confidential (a non-disclosure agreement will be provided.)

3 levels of interaction

You decide how deeply you are willing to allow me to study your organization.

Level 1: questions and observation – this is simply giving me access to your executives and management for brief interviews and a chance to observe your workplace for two to four days over a period of a couple of weeks. The number of days depends on the size of your company.

Level 2: staff surveys and management personality assessments – this level of data gathering and investigation provides deeper insight into the underlying psychology that controls your company culture. Naturally this requires more time than level one.

Level 3: interviews on video – this includes everything in levels 1 and 2 and additionally involves conducting a number of videotaped interviews and possible group discussions. The video footage provides powerful evidence of underlying dynamics and issues confronting your staff and leadership. This process is especially insightful if your company is experiencing change management issues.

As I said earlier your privacy is secure and data acquired at all levels will only be used anonymously in my research work. If you want this type of analysis done at your company but do not wish to make the findings available for publishing, these services are available as consultation at the rate of $1,400 per day

Knowledge is power.

Upon completion of the data gathering I will sit down with you and present my findings. I believe you will find the process insightful and even inspiring.  Part of my work aims at training and educating employers about the way that social science can inform best business practice. Your support of this research will not only help you but will build a better environment for business overall.

If you would like to be considered for this project please fill out this request form. There is a limit to the number of companies I will select and I can only do this type of work for as long as my present funding holds out (which is mostly coming from earlier projects).

I look forward to hearing from you and getting under the hood of your organization.



*We make exceptions to the 15 person rule if your company is a promising start-up that has completed at least one round of funding.

Fill out this formif you want to discuss eligibility and participation