How to Tackle The New Thing

“How do you approach/strategize/tackle launching a new thing? What is your process? How did you follow it through to the finished thing? This seems to be part of what you have done well and repeatedly (launching over 100 products, constantly pivoting in new scenarios). My hurdle is always execution. How do you do it?” asked  Joel Wilson over email.

Well, Joel, that’s a tough question, especially because I want to be specific enough to help. I’ve wrestled in the last week with using myself as an example here because you might see what I’m doing now i.e. “book writing” and tune out if that’s not in your cards right now. I could study someone else but most people love to tell the story of the new thing AFTER it’s done and it becomes really a marketing act. (Sort of like most Fast Company profiles.) I could go back 3, 4 or 6 years in time to choose some specific instance in which I (when I led Rubicon) helped a major company redefine its product line (as I once did for Adobe), or to defend against a major competitor (as I did w Symantec to fight –and win– an epic industry battle against Microsoft). But I fear that if I do so, I will lose specificity. So I’m left with the current “new thing” that I’m chasing now, and ask you to squint a little at the topic, and see the “how” for you.

<remember to squint!>

To start…

Back in December 2012, about 3 months after publishing Social Era, I wrote a post called “In a Fragmented world, go deep”. I had just finished a huge book tour, and I wrote this without much reflection, born out of frustration at how much content was transient fluffiness. I felt myself struggling to compete with the volume of “noise” in the market.

One specific line in the Fragmented World piece – “to be a Morgan Freeman Voice in the times of Justin Bieber bop” resonated, clearly deeply important to me. I decided then that my path was not to try to be the “pop version” because I would surely lose to the voices of, say, a Seth Godin. I wanted instead to sink more deeply into the idea: to dig into the truths I found in Social Era and to chase the questions even further, to let those idea fill me, almost… to submerge.

Lesson: Hear the Tug of the Heart.

But I didn’t act on that tug. Submersion is, at a minimum, scary. The biggest and most real scare was to answer the question… where does the money to subsidize that come from?

Writing can be a one-way ticket to poverty. I write incredibly valuable, well-researched, and even thoughtful pieces – that guide many at inflection points. Evidence of success is that I’m ranked in the top 5 writers / pieces for the year over at Harvard. But that “success” brings in how much money? Zero. Even the magazine piece, on the open model of leadership of TED and TEDx, that I wrote, and rewrote, and rewrote again? Spending hundreds of hours from December-through January and then sections of February… how much did I earn? Zero. Nada. Zip. HBR don’t even give someone like me their own magazine. (Which I then go out and buy, the irony not being lost on me…)

So, while it’s super easy to say “work on what you love”, the economics are crazy. Even “the love” my blog/ website receives from the now 900,000 active followers is expensive. I was doing all sorts of things to earn money outside of writing and I felt it was impossible to stop.

Lesson: There’s no denying the costs to working on the Next Thing. 

Around this time, Amanda Palmer’s talk, on the Economics of Generosity, …which I talked about here was stewing and brewing inside. So did a conversation with Lex Sisney, where I heard myself about describe something as being about “legitimacy” — a conversation shared here. But it was actually a series of 10 conversations re serving on notable corporate board that brought things into perspective. I was seriously thinking about saying yes… knowing it wasn’t going to be fun. Even though I’d be “famous” because of the role, the ability to create real impact just seemed low. And this new thing — this idea nugget just kept screaming in my head — So, with about $500,000 effectively sitting on the table, I finally yielded to the message: “WRONG WAY; GO BACK”.

Wrong Way> Go back

And, after that, I realized I wasn’t willing to sell-out. Money, and time had become a reason (maybe even a convenient excuse?) to not chase the thing. And if I look back at my 20 or so year corporate history, I’m reminded as to why most things fail. The thinking is we’ll just fit in this other HUGE thing while also doing everything we’ve always done. While this is not a sure step to failure, it is a sure sign of not making a tough decision.

Lesson: Decide, really decide, what to give up to make space for the new thing.

That was around Fall, 2013. About 8 or 9 months from the initial tug.

On a post-it standing at the post office, I had made a list of next steps to move forward. The biggest piece I could see myself struggling with is finding the edge of the idea – the thing that makes it broadly relevant, because there’s a problem that someone actually needs solving.

A few days later, I had coffee with someone and later signed up for a workshop aimed to solve just this kind of thing, led by the team at the OpEd Project. OpEds are entirely about shaping the agenda of the world, by finding the edge of the idea that is broadly relevant. The workshop notion was to go under some big trees, to think about your big ideas and to get 1:1 writing support, and “workshopping” time with your ideas. I was so looking forward to it even though it came at a huge cost of personal time (3 days away from the kiddo / family), not to count the direct out-of-pocket expense.

Knowing that fellow travelers are key to a new journey, it was easy to say what Justine Musk would call a Deep YES to this interesting Mountain Retreat.

Lesson: Find others already on the journey, or to go with you.

Even though the retreat and the team had the best intentions, it failed to do so many things it promised. I did however met some amazing people, maybe even made some new friends. (Time will tell.) Something I was sure would work, didn’t. A good reminder that things sometimes don’t work out as you expect. Creating a new thing is less linear than we think (and want). After all, markets change super fast. Today, there are few “barriers to entry” and the value chain is more like a value flow. People make promises they don’t know how to keep. Any of us can go from “being clear, and on the right track” and being entirely flummoxed.

Lesson: Recognize it’s an adventure.

The one thing I went to the retreat to go answer went unanswered, even after a lotta-lotta work. (To the point of even having to insist that we work on an exercise after being promised it 12 hours earlier…)

Today, I am living in the recrimination of all that wasted effort. While I might one day see what happened as a necessary step in the process, today is a raw and devastating loss of not getting help that I both needed (and paid for). It means more resources will need to be dug up, a retrench, and to start again. This is the truth I’m reminded of on days like this: nothing happens as you plan but what matters is how you deal. Which ties to what Carol Dweck taught us, to trust in your own resourcefulness.

Lesson: Trust in Your Ability to Grow

So far, in this post, I’ve caught you up to the moment in time. Which is still very much a work in progress. But in many ways, the hard stuff is done: resources are aligned, intentions are clear, obstacles have been removed…but there is still loads of hard stuff to do.

Tomorrow is the first of many days I’ll spend interviewing people. One organization and the people involved appear to match my working thesis that says networks are the companies, and the power of connection is a new power. I’ve had the good fortune of working with someone who could help me identify the right people to talk with. Others have helped me shape what to look for and explore. I spent the earlier part of today organizing the notes, preparing questions, and so on. I expect to show up with curiosity and then to find out tons of things I don’t know. Even if it all “goes right”, I’ll be exploring new ground, sometimes lost and regrouping when needed. I’ll write and synthesize, then draft and redraft.

And if I live through all that well enough to find an edge of an idea…. , this will turn into a magazine piece or an opening chapter of the next book (or something) but I can’t confirm any of the outcomes yet. All I know is that I need to enter the project. And do the work.

Lesson: Do the hard part of the hard part.

***
Your original question, Joel, was how to do execution, so I’ll end with the broader observation, – the gap between strategy and execution is a persistent one. It happens in organizations, it happens in our lives. In my 1st book (do you know about it? Published in 2010, it’s called The New How), I describe this gap as an “Air Sandwich” – the persistent void between the big idea and the execution. I called it the Air Sandwich because all the stuff that matters — the thing that makes it complete — is missing. To fill it is about making the necessary tradeoffs, making tough decisions, and aligning resources. This is what I’m doing — though more slowly than I wish.

Hope that was helpful to you, Joel, and ideally to all of you reading along. As is always true, feel free to continue the conversation with questions, etc in the comments.

 

20 Responses:

  1. Joel Wilson. December 16, 2013 at 10:34 pm  |  

    Thank you for this post, and yes, it is helpful! I’m surprised that so much of it is about the intangible – seeing a direction and counting the cost, digging in, having and developing grit, being spontaneous, facing uncertainty, finding community along the journey and then – simply doing. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard. The intangible is uncomfortable and yet it seems like if you can keep going in spite of the fogginess, you end up with all kinds of unexpected treasure – the joy of surprise, friends, adventure, and the fulfillment that comes from having brought a new thing into the world.

    The challenge/invitation that I hear in this post is to consider the cost of the new thing and then to be agile and resourceful along the way. Not easy. Maybe scary. Maybe even terrifying. But that’s what it takes.

    Reply
  2. Ben Kehoe. December 16, 2013 at 11:45 pm  |  

    Beautiful work – reflects a little of my own journey! Am following with much interest and distant support! Go for it!!

    Reply
  3. Marcus K. Dowling (@marcuskdowling). December 17, 2013 at 2:17 am  |  

    Well, I actively try to never consider money as a draw to doing anything really worth doing. I also try to surround myself with people whose passions and motivations are similar to, but different than mine. Also, as well, YOU taught me, understanding and appreciating their thoughts about the ideas that I have just gives what I’m trying to do a whole other layer of depth that ultimately pushes the concept along. Doing a “new thing” for any reason less than improving one’s own metaphysical balance is completely insane, too. I’m a big believer in doing things that are ultimately “safe, yet spectacular,” and achieving balance is a big part of making that concept possible. Thanks for writing this, and as always, thanks for the help and support!

    Reply
  4. Joel Wilson. December 17, 2013 at 4:42 am  |  

    Thank you for this post, and yes, it is helpful! I’m surprised that so much of it is about the intangible – seeing a direction and counting the cost, digging in, having and developing grit, being spontaneous, facing uncertainty, finding community along the journey and then – simply doing. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard. The intangible is uncomfortable and yet it seems like if you can keep going in spite of the fogginess, you end up with all kinds of unexpected treasure – the joy of surprise, friends, adventure, and the fulfillment that comes from having brought a new thing into the world.

    The challenge/invitation that I hear in this post is to consider the cost of the new thing and then to be agile and resourceful along the way. Not easy. Maybe scary. Maybe even terrifying. But it seems worth it!

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. December 17, 2013 at 10:34 am  |  

      Joel –
      We are each called to do our own soul’s work, but doing so means entering into it. I remember a line and I’m sorry for not remembering the source. But it was this “In doing, we become”.

      I’m wanted for some time to write to readers’ notes because I felt I would be more grounded and specific. In this doing, I became more than I was before because I had tried it — taken the wish to an action.

      We’ll see where that leads.
      Let us know Joel what you do with all this?
      Nilofer

      Reply
      • joeltimothy. December 17, 2013 at 2:51 pm  |  

        I love that quote. I’ll be chewing on this post for a while!

        Reply
  5. Lex Sisney. December 17, 2013 at 7:52 am  |  

    What a courageous and beautiful post Nilofer! It’s rare for people to share what’s happening “in-process” and your candor is refreshing and captivating. You didn’t spell it out specifically but what I took away from the article is the word “trust.” Trust in the process, trust in your talents and intuition, and trust that you’ll figure it out. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. December 17, 2013 at 10:30 am  |  

      Lex –
      I’m glad to see this note because it means you can see your trace on this work.
      Nilofer

      Reply
  6. tash wong. December 17, 2013 at 12:16 pm  |  

    Thanks for this post Nilofer! It’s really helpful to read from others who are investing their time and resources into the unknown, and being candid about when it doesn’t work. The circuitous paths of working on something New can be so frustrating and difficult – no doubt because we’re simultaneously learning to think in ways that are outside of the industrial/linear thought patterns we grew up with.

    Reply
  7. Todd Gorman. December 19, 2013 at 6:30 pm  |  

    Nilofer, to branch off just a little from the quote you had (or maybe this is the one you had in mind), I love this expression and just recently ran across it:

    “People are more likely to ACT their way into a new way of thinking than THINK their way into a new way of acting.” This comes from consultant Richard Pascale in his book, “Surfing the Edge of Chaos”.

    So, the call to action is the way forward rather than too much thinking!

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. January 14, 2014 at 11:22 am  |  

      Thanks, Todd!

      Reply
  8. Frances Schagen. January 1, 2014 at 6:07 am  |  

    As someone who gets lost in the air sandwich, I needed to read this post. Thank you for naming it and for letting me know I’m not the only one. I’m full of great ideas I can see, hear, and feel in my head. I can even share those visions effectively. The execution is the problem.

    One of my words for this year is Build – as in fill in the air sandwich and make some of those visions become real.

    Keep rocking Nilofer! We need you to keep being you!

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. January 14, 2014 at 11:23 am  |  

      Build is a GREAT word for the new year. Build, then rebuild if necessary but … just keep going and work on it.

      Reply
  9. Soydanbay. January 14, 2014 at 10:50 am  |  

    Indeed writing can be a one-way ticket to poverty. That said, maybe it is also a highway to wealth…

    Four years ago, I embarked on a similar journey. Financially speaking, writing has yet to pay off. If you ask my bank account, it would say, “You should have never left the corporate world.” But strangely, I feel richer on so many areas. As an ad goes, I realised I am richer than I think…

    First, to be a writer you need to be an avid reader. The more I read, the more knowledgeable I become. That made me intellectually wealthy.

    But the more I learned, the more cognisant I became about how little I actually know. That is such a humbling experience, as if your ego gets punched in the nose… On one hand, I realised how insignificant “I” was in isolation. But, on the other, I saw that as long as I was really passionate about what I do, I could get connected to those people that really matter. That made me spiritually wealthy.

    Often, we suppress our potential, because we fear that it would burden us with new responsibilities. I think sharing your thoughts is a burden. Every time you publish something, you stick your neck out. You make yourself open to criticism. So, I needed to gain confidence, developing a thicker skin. That made me wealthy in terms of courage.

    And finally, nothing connects people like an idea. If you believe in what you write, and write what you believe, as Joe Campbell said, “Doors will open where there were walls.” Moreover, your writing would turn into a platform through which people connect. To me, your blog is an actual proof of that. And that makes you socially wealthy.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. January 14, 2014 at 11:24 am  |  

      You remind me of a piece I just read on relational wealth — it’s to feel connection, to be in community, to be exposed to new ideas, to have people you can trust in, etc. In all those cases, I am HUGELY wealthy because of Yes & Know community (thank you!) and of course that makes me only want to give back. The network effect of altruism / generosity perpetuates itself.

      Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. January 15, 2014 at 9:05 am  |  

      I wanted to share this piece on relational value which speaks to the truths you just outlines: The social psychologist Mark Leary has explicitly coined the term “relational value”, and has argued that it is the root of self-esteem. According to the unified theory, relational value is the foundational value that organizes and guides us in relationships. Why is relational value so central? An evolutionary perspective provides an obvious answer. We were social creatures long before we were even human. For eons, the ability to influence the actions of others in accordance with one’s interests would have been highly advantageous, whereas the inability to do so would have been potentially catastrophic. Thus, we have evolved a sort of internal barometer (what Leary calls a sociometer), that measures our relational value. more here:
      http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory-knowledge/201206/relational-value/

      Reply
      • Soydanbay. January 15, 2014 at 9:30 pm  |  

        This (pointing to the interaction above…) is precisely why people love your blog. Thanks!

        Reply

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