One Shot, One Kill: an approach for thinking about your management and strategy style.

I’ve been thinking a lot about effectiveness and efficiency over the past few months, and I want to share a story about how I came to a realisation about my management style and also my approach to strategy and business. I call it the “One Shot, One Kill” approach.

This understanding and subsequent naming of this approach all came together for me while I was doing a mind-numbing and repetitive job ~ I had to punch about 2,800 individual nails into a deck, each to a depth of 2mm under the surface (bear with me, these details become important later).

When you get the opportunity to do something over and over again, you quickly try and find the most efficient way possible to do it. This includes not expending any more energy than is absolutely necessary to get the job done to the quality that is required. @Timferris calls this “the minimum effective dose” ~ do what is necessary, but no more.

Back to the deck: I began by using a carpenter’s hammer and a 2mm nail punch. I found that each nail required between 6 and 12 hits with the hammer before it was at a depth that was acceptable. After the first 100 nails, I had decided that there had to be a better way (apparently, I’m a slow learner; it’s another ‘lesson’ that I’ve learned and have put processes in place to ensure doesn’t happen again).

This led me to my first realisation – I needed a bigger hammer. Now this is nothing new, often if you apply more force to a problem you can just muscle it through, though this is often not a very elegant solution. (Unfortunately the “more force” approach is one that management often defaults to in the absence of a more sophisticated approach to problem solving). This is not the realisation that mattered to me though, it was the fact that there is a more appropriate tool for the job. I’d selected an approach that was not ‘right’ to solve the problem. In my selection of the carpenter’s hammer (which I had readily in my toolbox) I had effectively chosen a tool that required me to expend more energy than necessary (multiple hits). A quick trip to my local hardware store later, a 3 minute conversation with the owner and I had a brand new 3-pound hammer and I was now only hitting each nail on average 3 times before it was the required depth below the surface. The hammer was heavier to lift, but I had to lift it fewer times. Energy saved.

The next 50 nails taught me my next lesson. If I wanted to get a better result, I needed to commit all of my attention and focus to solving that particular problem right then and there. Any distraction and I’d have to re-strike the nail punch. Energy wasted. So I began to focus on just hitting the nail punch dead centre each and every time. It basically became an exercise in focussing on hitting the nail-punch and not worrying about missing and hitting my thumb. I found that if I worried about hitting my thumb rather than hitting the head of the nail-punch, I would swing the hammer with less force. Fear meant that I didn’t commit to the task. Fear meant that I would probably have to hit the punch more than once. This increased the opportunity for me to hit my thumb, so on a couple of levels it was better for me to only ever hit the punch once – it meant less energy spent and I was less likely to hit my thumb. The lesson here: concentrated effort generates a better result.

My success with these first two realisations encouraged me to experiment with all the other variables I could think of. My focus was to only hit the punch in such a way that it drove the nail the required depth (but no more) with only one hit. I experimented with everything I could think of – arc of swing; position of punch; size of punch; angle of strike; force of strike; position of body; position of head; time of day (during the day the wood would heat up and expand, meaning that the nails were easier to drive); orientation of punch (I was more likely to have a successful strike if the punch was orientated square to the angle of strike – any other orientation seemed to cause me to be less confident about the strike and thus ‘pull’ my swing often resulting in me having to strike it again. Weird, I know, but the results showed that a square orientation is best).

Ultimately, punching all these nails became a meditative and somewhat competitive process that revealed to me my (unconscious) approaches to management and strategy.

Management: Decide early what the best approach is to solving the problem and commit to it. Be aware, though, that you might be wrong and that better solutions may exist. Be open to them and adapt quickly and without regret. Just because you have a tool in the toolbox, doesn’t mean that you should use it unthinkingly or for the sake of convenience.

Strategy: It’s better to commit to an approach and constantly evolve/experiment than to try and get it exactly right the first time as a result of pre-planning. There will always be a million variables that you can’t pre-empt (e.g the square v. not square orientation issue) without direct experience. Build the results of the experience back into the strategy formation process for next time. Learn the lesson and integrate it into all other subsequent thinking. Figure out what the main strategic aspects are and solve for these in the planning, but don’t obsess over things you can’t control or possibly anticipate. Do rather than Plan.

Management: There is a correct way of doing something and a correct amount of ‘force’ that is necessary. Don’t over-do it. The management/leadership theorists would call this contingency theory, but that doesn’t cover it adequately. There is the added aspect of “the minimum effective dose” that these theories often overlook. Refine both the approach and effort required to get the result that you want and concentrate on doing just that. This simple approach will generate systemwide efficiencies that can be leveraged in other ways. Use the energy saved to work on other, more important things.

Strategy: Know what you have to ultimately achieve, but concentrate on the task at hand. 2,800 nails punched in to a depth of 2mm was the required result, however if I only concentrated on the end goal, I would have missed all the thousands of little improvements that ultimately meant that I achieved the final result in the most efficient manner. I was aware that I had a deadline and that this job had to be done by Friday night ready for a weekend of sanding and staining; getting it done was important (effectiveness) but combining that with a one-nail-at-a-time focus meant that I was surprised when the job was finished with much less effort and in a shorter time than I expected. The strategic goal kept me focussed and motivated to spend my time and energy in this one area and not somewhere else (the point of strategy in the first place) and in the end this exercise is all about adding value to our home/asset that we can realise later. Good strategy can get you through the grind of mind-numbing tasks.

The “One Shot, One Kill” approach is about much more than just efficiency. It combines a focus on applying yourself to a task in such a way that generates extraordinary results and allows you to learn, grow and improve rapidly so that you can stretch ahead of the competition. This post may ostensibly been about hammering nails into a deck, but the lessons for business are important.
When next you are doing something in your business, try the One Shot, One Kill approach. Try to justify your actions in terms of both management and strategy.

Let me know how you go. I’m interested in results.

When the Quality of the Mistake Matters More than the Cost.

(If you have been referred here from my twitter account @jasondowns and you are looking for details on the coffee give-away, they can be found at the end of this post  ~ cheers, Jason.)

(UPDATE: The coffee has been claimed.)

The following is a great lesson in knowing what your business’ strategic imperative is and sticking to it…  even when you make a mistake.

I buy my coffee from  Monk Bodhi Dharma (@monkbodhidharma). They are all the way over in St Kilda, some 40 minute drive from where I live. Yes, 40 minutes.  Their coffee is THAT good. Quality, through and through. And when you drink long blacks (as I do), the quality of the coffee is EVERYTHING. To top it off, the guys that run it are nice and I always feel welcomed there. Not surprisingly, business is good.

But what sets these guys apart in an already crowded market is their uncompromising commitment to great coffee. It’s the kind of uncommon, single-minded focus that tells you that these guys are experts.  Seriously knowledgeable about their product and willing to put their reputation on the line in a very public way: with every cup they pour.  One bad coffee and their reputation suffers.  They have to get it right each.and.every.time.

Well, today they got it wrong.

They made a mistake.

Not a huge mistake by any stretch of the imagination but a mistake none-the-less.


Here’s what happened:  I’d ordered some coffee for home (single origin, el Salvador coffee if you don’t mind) ground for my espresso machine. Serious coffee. Great coffee. A little cup of Heaven in my kitchen.

And at $72/Kg, it would want to be good.

So I’m chatting to one of the guys while Martin is off freshly grinding my coffee ready for me to use in my machine, when he comes back and begins to apologise. He’d ground it too course. It would be great used in a plunger, but no good in an espresso machine. Sorry.

Now here was the moment of truth:  I was going to politely tell hime that I *REALLY* wanted it ground for espresso, not a plunger, and ask if he could fix it when he said:

My mistake.  Sorry.  You can have that one for free.  I’ll go and grind you another one.

No trying to weasel his way out of it like others may have tried to do. No trying to ‘rectify’ the mistake by trying to grind it further (somehow) which may have resulted in a poorer experience for me and my machine. He just went and ground me another bag and this time he got it right.  Quality in action.

Quality is #No1 for these guys and Martin instantly recognised that what he had made was not what I’d asked for. What he had done was not the quality that I expected and it wasn’t of the quality that they demand of themselves.

Their strategic imperative? Quality.

Their operationalisation of this strategic imperative? Never compromise the quality of the product or the experience.

The lesson here for all businesses is instructive:  A single-minded commitment to your strategic imperative can mean that even when you make a mistake, if you act in an authentic manner and in line with your strategic imperative, you can turn a mistake into a positive experience for the customer.

So, I have a couple of questions for you:  Do you know what your business’ strategic imperative is? Do you or your employees know what it takes to fulfil that strategic imperative each and every time? Even when you make a mistake?

I, for one, will be back.

This is the coffee I'm giving away. Be quick!

[As promised, I have 250g of freshly ground “el Salvador Finca Alaska” coffee to give away.  Yes, the same coffee that was ground for plunger by mistake. If you live in Melbourne and you are willing to pick it up from me in the city on Monday, it can be all yours.  Trust me, you won’t regret it.  All you have to do is tweet me @jasondowns and ask for it. First in, best dressed].

[UPDATE: The Coffee has been claimed]

Management Tip: Time off “The Grid”


Just a short post to let you know that I’ll be taking “time off the grid” to travel and visit family over the Christmas period between mid-December and mid-January.

It is a time for renewal and also an opportunity to go analogue with some of my thoughts about how to continue this blog – and begin to affect any changes that might be needed.

I wish you all the very best over the holiay period and look forward to re-connecting with you again in 2011.

[•] jason

How to Innovate a Product or Service.

Today I want to share with you EXACTLY HOW you can develop the thinking skills that will let you innovate any existing product or service and create something new.  Towards the end of this post I’ll use an example to help illustrate the concepts in action.

“Where do I start?”

This is often the first question that springs forth when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of innovation.  People can get paralysed by not having enough imagination to begin the process of thinking about innovation.  Well, the good news is that there are different types of imagination, and the one we are going to explore today rests on the idea of affordances.

First, some background…

Gibson’s concept of affordance is a key proposal.  The idea is quite straightforward. In any interaction involving an agent with some other system, conditions that enable that interaction include some properties of the agent along with some properties of the other system. Consistent with his emphasis on understanding how the environment supports cognitive activity, Gibson focused on contributions of the physical system. The term affordance refers to whatever it is about the environment that contributes to the kind of interaction that occurs. One also needs a term that refers to whatever it is about the agent that contributes to the kind of interaction that occurs. I prefer the term ability, although Shaw et al. (1982) preferred to coin the term effectivity for that concept. I believe my use of the term ability is also synonymous with Snow’s (1992) use of the term aptitude.

Affordances and abilities (or effectivities or aptitudes) are, in this view, inherently relational. An affordance relates attributes of something in the environment to an interactive activity by an agent who has some ability, and an ability relates attributes of an agent to an interactive activity with something in the environment that has some affordance. The relativity of affordances and abilities is fundamental. Neither an affordance nor an ability is specifiable in the absence of specifying the other. It does not go far enough to say that an ability depends on the context of environmental characteristics, or that an affordance depends on the context of an agent’s characteristics. The concepts are codefining, and neither of them is coherent, absent the other, any more than the physical concept of motion or frame of reference makes sense without both of them. – Greeno, J 1994, Psychological Review, Vol 10, No 2 p.338

As he says… quite straightforward.

The important phrase here, I think, is that “(T)he concepts are codefining,”.  Imagine, for a moment, a typical lecture theatre that can be found in any mainstream university across the country (sadly).  Also, imagine a university professor who wants to use the room differently, innovatively.  The ability for someone to see the possibilities in a room full of fixed furniture is partly due to affordances of the room, but also the facility of the person to understand ‘the room’.  Without the person, the room is just, well, a room.  With a person, the room becomes a realm of possibilities.  Without the room, the person is, well, a person.  For there to be some creative use of the space, the room needs to suggest affordances to the person, and the person needs to be able to suggest actions for the room (based on past experiences or other conceptualisations) and BOTH need lead to “an activity that can be supported” such as ‘different teaching’.

So, how do we go about exploring the affordances offered by the person-room interaction in such a way that it might be useful in our own practice?

One of the mental frameworks that I have found useful in thinking about the affordances of different objet/situations that I encounter is one that I have shamelessly ripped off from Kalantzis and Cope and the Learning by Design Project Team.  Within their work, they expand on the idea of teaching students to learn within a contemporary world and that the thinking skills required can be taught effectively by teachers with the right skills.  They have developed a framework of Knowledge Processes, and it is this framework that I find useful.

An example:

Of the room, I might ask “How is this room similar or the same as other rooms that I have been in/seen/experienced?”  This is essentially a locating strategy – I’m really asking myself:  “Is this a room?”.  From there I begin to search my experience and stored knowledge (including memory) for situations I have been in that are similar but different to the room.  I am looking for adjacent experiences in order to begin to conceptualise the room.  “Is this a room, or is it a theatre?  Is this a room or is it a colosseum?”

I begin conceptualising the room by naming the things I see in it – walls, roof, floor, chairs, tables, carpet, lights, air-conditioning etc.  I continually test these named conceptualisations against my experience of roomness.  As this is an iterative process, and as I am keen not to lock down my thinking on this idea of “room” just quite yet, I begin to theorise about how the concepts can be (re)-conceptualised.

In order to do this, I need to analyse the space (and all the concepts within it – including the concept of ‘space’) on two equally important levels – the first is the functional level.  How do the ‘things’ (concepts, remember?) in the room work?  What are their functions?  Physically, how are they constructed? What is their purpose?  What are they made out of? etc.  The idea here is to get a sense of how things work – either intentionally or unintentionally.  I might say that the flatness of the desks provide a good writing surface, but equally I may think of them in terms of height, hardness, area, colour, taste, reflectiveness, spatial orientation/distribution, sound transmission qualities etc etc..  I begin to break down the concept of “desk” into its functions.  This is important if I wish to begin thinking about the desk as something other than a desk in the future – it is here that the affordance of the object and my ability to be able to act in relation to that object may begin to coalesce.

The other dimension that I need to analyse the room in is that of the critical (human) aspects in the design of the room.  What was the purpose of the room being constructed in this manner?  Was it to keep the teacher at the front as the centre of all knowledge and to dis-empower the students?  How does this ‘room’ reinforce or create power relationships with all who use it?  Whose interests does it promote?  What are the implications for the environment?  for justice?  for freedom?  for truth?

At this stage, some possibilities begin to surface about how the room may be used:  The most obvious one is as “a room” or “lecture theatre”.  This would be an entirely appropriate application of the conceptualisations and analysis done so far, and most people would be able to do this fairly easily – unfortunately, this is where the idea of “roomness” gets further entrenched and teachers fall back on what they have always done.  The other approach is to apply all the thinking that we have done to a creative way of using the room.  This is harder, but is transformative.  “How can I use this room differently?”, stops being about ‘the room’, but begins to be about ‘how can I use all these concepts differently’?  What does the room afford me as a function of what I am able to do/know?

Recognising that it may be true that the furniture is fixed, but that does not mean that there is only one way to use it has a direct impact on the choices that you make as to what you choose to use the room.

It takes time to learn to think in terms of affordances, but with practice it gets easier – and then that’s when the opportunities to innovate products and services seem to pop up EVERYWHERE.   This is a good thing.

So, the next time you are considering a product or service and wondering how to innovate, take a few moments to reflect on the affordances the combination of you and the product/service provide for opportunities to innovate.  Work your way through the framework and I’m sure you’ll have the AH-HA moment that you’ve been looking for.

Reflective Management is more than just who, what, when, how and why…

Every now and then I come across something that leaves me slapping my own head in bewilderment and wondering how stuff like this gets published.

Today, Umair Haque published a blogpost on the venerable Harvard BusinessReview website in which he riffs about how boardrooms (and presumably other spaces within a business – but he doesn’t mention that) should ALSO be places of quiet reflection in order to help guide strategy.   In the first instance, I resent the implication that others within a company can’t reflect (or that it is not their place) and secondly I resent the inference that reflection is baked into the corporate DNA only at the head – i.e. it is a top-down process.  But what REALLY BAKES MY CHEESE is that according to the esteemed Mr. Haque, it is reflection of OTHERS (other people, other actions, other processes and systems etc) and that he seems to have forgotten that a central aspect of reflection is to do the thinking about the SELF.

One of the critical aspects of reflective thinking is ensuring that you approach the exercise in a, well… critical manner.  Nowhere in Mr. Haques post does he even mention this important aspect.  Now, ‘thinking critically’ can mean a lot of different things depending on who you ask, but one of my favourite explanations of it can be found in the Learning by Design literature.

“Analysing critically is a process of interrogating human intentions and interests.  For any piece of knowledge, action, object or represented meaning we can ask the questions: Whose point of view or perspectve does it represent?  Who does it affect?  Whose interests does it servce?  What are its social and environmental consequences?” – p.77

If boards(!) are supposed to make a difference, then they have to not only engage in reflective thinking (as Mr. Haque defines it), but they must also engage with reflexive thinking.  Briefly, reflexive thinking involves understanding how a situation (and the people within it) are impacted by the social order and then thinking about how they might alter their behaviour in order to change the social order in some way.  It is about being aware of what is going on and your influence over the situation.  It is not good enough to ask the standard who, what, when, how, etc. questions, managers need to be socially aware of what the implications of any decision are from a critical perspective.

This type of thinking takes time to develop, but once it is, it becomes hard to operate and make decisions that don’t take into account the social ramifications.  I agree that boards should take some time to think more deeply about the decisions that they make – in this, Mr. Haque and I agree – but the type of thinking required needs to be guided by a reflexive orientation to making decisions.

One of the questions that boards will need to ask themselves is whether it is ‘right’ for all the power to be concentrated at the top.  It’s a thorny issue, and I’ve got a few things to say about that too – but that’s for another post.  A truly reflexive board will spend time trying to deeply understand their role and the impacts that those roles have on business and all the other stakeholders (including society at large).

My experience with boards is that they meet too infrequently and for periods of time that are too short for this type of thinking skill to develop.  What a shame.

(Image courtesy of :

The Customer Comes First – Sometimes. (Or: why 1/2 a haircut will have to do).

I have a story about awesome customer service…  and how it can get in the way of what is important.  What I am about to tell you may seem fanciful.  In fact, I’m not making it UP, I’m making it DOWN.  Trust me, I was there.

I’ve been going to my barber for about 7 years now.  Henry.  Nice guy.  Young family, likes camping and fishing with the kids.  Can tell a good joke.  I keep going back not because his haircuts are cheap (they are); not because he will fit me in if I’m in a hurry (he wont); not because he he does a good job (he does); but because he is a Customer Service Guru – in his own way.  When you sit in that chair and he begins to wield the scissors, here is THERE.  Focussed.  It’s all about you.

You can’t get an appointment with Henry.  You have to take your chances.  He works on a first come, first served basis, and if you are fifth in line and in a hurry for an important meeting , he’ll get to you when he gets to you. But not before he has finished with the other four.   Each haircut he takes seriously.  For him running the clippers over someone’s head requires as much care and dedication as someone who asks for a specific cut to hide the growing bald-patch – just don’t ask for something “fancy” – this is a barber’s shop after all, and Henry doesn’t do “fancy”.

So, here I am, in desperate need for a haircut and a bit of time on my hands – so I head off to Henry’s.  First stop, the cafe next door.  Pick up a couple of coffees (one for me, one for him) and then into Henry’s to settle in for the wait.  Today, however, I’m in luck.  There is only one guy in front of me and he is just getting finished!  (I’ve waited over 2 hours in the past).  Cool.  I’m in.

So, we begin chatting and Henry begins cutting – we swap stories about our families, I ask about his wife, he asks about mine – that sort of thing.  And then the phone rings.

Henry pauses and I can see he is thinking about whether he should pick it up.  The phone keeps ringing.  henry hesitates – I can tell he wants to keep cutting my hair…

“Go on,” I say, “it might be important.”

So he picks up the phone – and I can hear hysteria on the other end.  Henry starts yelling into the phone – it’s clear that it’s his wife on the other end – “How bad is it?”, “How did you do it?”, “Call an ambulance!”

He rings off and looks at me. I ask what’s going on, and he tells me that his wife has cut herself somehow.  THEN HE PICKS UP HIS SCISSORS AND COMES BACK TO FINISH CUTING MY HAIR!

“Henry!” I gasp, “You’ve got to call her back!”  “How bad is it?”

“I’m sure she’ll be all right” he says.

“HENRY!!  Call her back right now!”

So he does.  She’s still hysterical.  She’s crying, there’s much talk of blood and ambulances.  He hangs up and begins to make his way back to me, scissors in hand.  It’s clear that he intends to FINISH MY HAIRCUT.

Time for action:  I stand up and begin to take off the barber’s cloak and get out of the chair.  henry just looks at me and says: “But I’ve only half finished…”.

“Henry, you’ve got to get home to your wife.”

So, it turns out that Henry rides his bike to work every day, and he needs a lift home.  Can I do that?  Sure.  Let’s go.

On the way to his house, he keeps apologising about the half-done-haircut.  I tell him not to worry about it, I can wear a hat for a few days.  We’ve got to get him home.  It’s a mad dash to get to his house – maybe speeding laws were broken, maybe they weren’t – I’m not saying.  I will say, though, that we got there FAST.

On the way, Henry confides in me that he “is not good with blood”.

“Don’t worry,”  I tell him, “I’m cool with blood.”

So we screech into his street and I can see Rosie (his wife) standing out the front of the house with a big, white cloth over her wrist.  First thoughts:

  • a). She’s vertical.  Good.  A bit pale, but vertical.
  • b). The cloth is white.  Probably means the cut is not bad.  A lot of panic for nothing.  Also good.

We jump out of The Jeep and I go up to her and ask her if she is ok – there’s lots of tears and Henry is trying to calm her down…

“Let’s have a look”, I say.

I begin to unwrap the cloth and realise that there is another one underneath it.  A tea-towel.  And this one is SOAKED in blood.  Lots of blood.


Neither Henry or Rosie are interested in looking at the wound, so I peel back the cloth and have a look.  Bad.  Very Bad.  The wrist is cut deeply and the wound is wide.  Lots of blood.  Time to wrap it up tightly and get her to Emergency.  Henry bundles his wife into their car and they head off to the hospital.  I make my way home to get ready for a meeting that I have in the afternoon.  I’ll call later and check up.

So, I make my meeting (wearing a hat) and all the way through it I can’t stop thinking about Henry and how locked-on he was about finishing my haircut when he should have been thinking about Rosie and her bleeding wrist.  Now, I know Henry pretty well, it’s clear he loves his wife and kids.  He is one down-to-earth-family-guy.  So why would he want to keep cutting my hair instead of dropping everything and heading home?  Why would he insist that he finish the job?

I intend to ask him this Saturday when  I go back to get the other half of my haircut…

PS.  Rosie is well.  The Emergency department saw her straight away and a couple of hours later she was heading home with some stitches and a new bandage.  I can’t wait to find out HOW she did it…

The HOW is just as important as the WHAT

Do we still need these?

Original Photograph: D’Arcy Norman. Used under Creative Commons. Image can be found here

Is it too early to call the death of the traditional lecture? Despite universities hanging on for grim death as their business models become less and less relevant can we confidently say: “Let’s get rid of lectures”? Should we say this?

As with all discussions, there are multiple perspectives that one can take and, as the famous saying goes, where you stand on this issue depends on where you sit. So let’s take a look at it…

Students: “Why should I come into a lecture theatre if al that is going to happen is that the lecturer is going to read off her slides and just stand there and talk *at* me and three hundred other students? Why can’t they just post their lecture on the web as a video podcast, or if that proves too difficult, as a slideshare document? What value do I get out of dragging myself into class at a time that often doesn’t suit me, but is dictated by the University and the whims of corporate timetabling? Haven’t these people heard of web 2.0? Ipods? Facebook? I don’t need to see the slide projected onto a 20′ screen. If I am that interested in what’s on the slide, I’ll print it out – they shouldn’t be cramming all that stuff into a slide anyway. Haven’t they heard of less-is-more?”

Lecturers: “So, I’ve got to ‘reach’ four hundred students in my Intro-to-Whatever-101 course. Each. Semester. I have to teach them to read, think, engage, critically analyse, synthesise, apply and write about what they are learning. I have to set assignments, quizzes, exams. At the end of each semester I have to ‘certify’ that Student X actually learnt something and is capable of moving onto the next part of the programme. Sure, I wish we could all sit around and have deep-and-meaningful discussions about the subject matter, but the fact is there are just too many students in each class for me to do that with. What would happen if I opened up the lecture for discussion? What of the students went off on a tangent? While it might be interesting, it wouldn’t fit with my carefully-thought-out-plan. If they don’t stick to the plan, how can they possibly expect to pass at the end of semester when the exam rolls around? No, better to keep control of the knowledge and information here at the front of the theatre – where it belongs. Besides, if we begin letting students think for themselves, what does that say about the value of the investment I have made in my own education – in becoming The Expert?”

There are more perspectives (of course) but these two are broadly representative of some views I have heard over the past couple of months.