The Wisdom of The Bulletin Board: Innovating With Discipline

For years, I’ve had a small magazine clipping pinned on my bulletin board. It’s a picture of Meg Whitman, CEO of eBay, with the following quote: “…strategy is as much the art of exclusion as inclusion. What are you NOT going to do?”

The clipping is sun faded and dog eared, and it’s only about 3 or 4 inches in size. But I have carried it with me from company to company. It’s had a place on the wall next to a few of my other favorites: a newspaper article about a woman who found a message from God in the veins of a tomato (no, I am not kidding), a credit card offer for a limited edition Elvis Visa card (unfortunately, I’m not kidding about that one either – you can even choose between the “young” or “old” Elvis on the card) and a quote from Seth Godin that appeared in Fast Company magazine: “There is no correlation at all between success and hours worked.” I am still trying to decide whether or not I agree with Seth. But I know for sure that I agree with Meg.

Recently, I read an article in the WSJ that reminded me of how important it is to define the few things that are important and and do them well – and that means resisting the temptation to do more. The article, “How Innovation Can Be Too Much of a Good Thing” tells the story of how Avery Dennison Corp. pared back its number of new product releases and as a result was able to get more good products to market successfully than in the old world of jamming endless ideas into the pipeline.

Every time I speak to my colleagues and clients in e-commerce, I hear the same thing. “We have such a bottleneck in IT. We just can’t get new site features out fast enough. Our list just keeps growing and we don’t have enough resources to get it all done.” Sound familiar? Of course it does.

But it’s not just an IT resource problem. IT just happens to be where the ideas start to back up at the door. If by some miracle your IT partners were actually able to do all of the things you want them to, it’s unlikely that the marketing teams would be able to successfully launch all of those products or that your designers and copywriters would be able to turn out all of the front end pages. Not to mention the need to stabilize and refine those new features once they went live.

If you have this problem (and you probably do), there are a few things you should do quickly to avoid the never ending logjam and cycle of poor execution:

Always have a complete list of all ideas and potential projects, both in work and in the queue. If the list feels like a hodgepodge of randomness, revisit your strategy: is it focused and clear to everyone on the team? What are the big things you need to accomplish to deliver on the strategy? Is there a well understood road map?

Understand your capacity for new projects vs. keeping the business running. If it takes 50% of your IT department’s time to maintain your existing site, you are going to jeopardize your business by pulling resources to work on new things. Chances are, other departments (marketing, site operations, creative, etc) have similar limitations.

Develop a straightforward, consistent process for evaluating and prioritizing new projects, and be relentless in following it- no projects “sneak on” to the list, no bribes. Be sure it’s clear who the final decision maker is.

Constantly monitor where you have bottlenecks (design, coding, testing, etc.) and use that to drive hiring decisions and resource allocations.

Resist the temptation to overload the team – build in time to fix bugs, refine features and analyze results.

Find a copy of an old book “

“, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox. It reads like a story (not the greatest one, by the way) but provides an easy to understand illustration of how the disciplines of identifying bottlenecks and managing throughput drive successful business results.

Be constantly aware that many companies tend to value innovation over execution. How much time do you spend in meetings brainstorming and generating new ideas vs. discussing which of those ideas are the most important and how you are going to be sure you have the time to execute them well? And, as Meg Whitman would ask, when you come out of those meetings, what have you decided NOT to do?

I guess if you’ve eliminated enough things, you can go home early relax in your front porch swings, which would prove Seth Godin right.

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