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Tony Hsieh on Delivering Happiness


Back at the South by Southwest conference in the spring, I happened to meet Tony Hsieh, CEO of the online retailer Zappos. He and a crew were driving around Austin in a purple school bus giving away copies of his book "Delivering Happiness."  They were also giving away pizza and beer, which is another good way to deliver happiness. 

If you're not familiar with Zappos, it's an interesting story.  At first, Hsieh was just an angel investor in the company, but as the company struggled to raise additional funds from larger VCs, Hsieh ended up committing more capital and eventually became CEO.  There were still many ups and downs in building the company, but eventually they found their stride and became a billion dollar online retailer of shoes.  Their claim to fame was the focus on customer service, making it easy for customers to buy their shoes --or return them --all with free shipping.  In 2009, Amazon acquired the company for approximately $1 billion.

The story of Zappos is an interesting one, and I wish the book provided more details on how the company grew, challenges they faced scaling the business, etc.  "Delivering Happiness," like a lot of books by CEOs, is somewhat uneven.  There are some good lessons on building the culture of a company, but some areas are glossed over.  You never really get a clear understanding as to what went wrong culturally at Hsieh's earlier company LinkExchange.  There's a lot on Hsieh's early years as a high school and college student coming up with ways to make money, which may or may not be of interest. Most of the sidebars on culture by Zappos employees are more illustrative of the energy and enthusiasm at Zappos than they are instructive to outsiders.  

There are some good ideas in the book and things to keep in mind in building a company and a culture.  But it falls short of what it could have been in providing more take away lessons for managers and entrepreneurs. 

How to Brainstorm New Ideas

I promised in last week's post on "How to Kill Good Ideas" to follow up with some ways that more constructively help create new ideas.  The first of these is taken from an idea by Mats Kindahl's post of two other ways to kill ideas. Without further delay, here they are...

  1. Make it safe to contribute ideas
    The best way to do this is encourage risk taking and acknowledge that some ideas will fail and that's acceptable.  The people I know who are the most creative are also the most prolific when it comes to idea generation.  And some of those ideas are, objectively speaking, total crap.  But there are so many good ideas generated in the process, it really doesn't matter.
  2. Go for quantity
    One of the basic tenets of brainstorming is that you need to generate a lot of ideas.  In order to encourage that, you have to refrain from evaluating ideas during the initial phase.  You simply write every idea down, no matter what you think of it, and then try to generate more ideas. You can always winnow down the ideas later on to chose the best ones to work on. But judging raw ideas as they are suggested is the surest way to kill a brainstorming session. 
  3. Make it a team sport
    Often in meetings there's a tendency to have one person present and others passively watching or worse, critiquing.  That's not a good way to generate ideas.  Instead, it's better to break up into smaller groups and give them a short period of time (20-30 minutes) and ask them to generate ideas.  Then you need to make sure that everyone is contributing.  It's a participation sport folks!  You're not there to be a spectator.  Not only will you generate more and better ideas, people will actually enjoy the meeting and feel that they contributed something.
  4. Cross-Pollinate
    Sometimes if all of the people working on a problem are from the same background you'll run out of ideas.  Call in someone with a different perspective.  When we've done successful brainstorming sessions at offsite meetings, the best ideas come when you mix up groups across disciplines and force people to explore ideas and problems outside of their area of expertise.  Invite the salespeople into a product brainstorming session.  Heck, invite the finance team.  You might get ideas that you'd never get from engineers.
  5. Get down from the mountain
    If you find yourself short of creative ideas maybe you're too isolated.  Get out of the ivory tower, the executive suite, or from behind your computer screen and get out into the real world.  I have found going out to see customers and just asking about their problems is a tremendously useful way to generate ideas.  Conferences are also good; you can see what other people are doing and consider how to apply other ideas to the problems you have.
  6. Consider it as an experiment
    Sometimes when the stakes are very high, it's easy to end up paralyzed.  In those cases, it can be helpful to approach potential solutions as experiments.  You test them out for a period of time and then you'll know whether it works or doesn't.  In most cases you can "undo" the experiment if it doesn't work out. But be sure to know what you'll measure to know if the experiment is a success. It might be product downloads or new customers acquired, but make sure you have some basis for knowing whether the experiment succeeded or not.  And sometimes even if it fails, you'll have learned something you can do differently. 
  7. Take a break
    This is counter-intuitive, but it's sometimes the best way to break through on a tough problem. If you're too entrenched in a problem its sometimes hard to be objective or open to a radical approach.  In those cases, it makes sense to take a break and engage in some other activity.  For me, the best way to come up with ideas is to go out for a run by myself and just see what ideas come to me.  For other people it might be a walk around the office building, a hike, a bike ride or a leisurely drive.  Anything that gets you out of the mode of intense concentration into a more receptive way of thinking will work.
  8. Be optimistic
    Sometimes the only difference between achieving success or failure on a problem is the belief that there is a solution and the willingness to continue to make the effort to strive towards it.  And every failure along the way is just a stepping stone.  Personally, I think it is better to be an optimist in life than a pessimist or even worse, a cynic. Besides, who wants to hang out with a pessimist? 

As before, I've stopped this "Top 10" listing short to encourage others to share their observations on how to come up with creative ideas. 

How To Kill Good Ideas

This past week I was in a couple of different strategic planning meetings.  Some sessions were noticeably more effective than others in encouraging creative ideas.  I started to wonder why that is and came up with the top ways to kill new ideas. If you see these tenets taking hold in your organization, then you need to change things up to get people thinking more radically. 

  1. Every idea must be perfect
    The enemy of good is perfect.  If you aim for perfection you'll probably never get out of the starting gate.  By making something good (or even "good enough"), you can get it to market and improve it.  As Philippe Kahn used to say at Borland in the 1980's "Shipping is a feature."  In other words, until you get to market, you haven't done anything.  Good ideas that get implemented can be improved.  Great ideas that never get out don't amount to anything.  No idea is ever perfect, but taking risk is better than doing nothing.  If you're not making some mistakes, you're probably not taking enough risk. Better to create a culture that encourages risk taking and rewards new ideas than to become so afraid that you never try anything.
  2. Manage by concensus
    If you've got radical ideas it's pretty much guaranteed that you won't get concensus.  Heck, if it doesn't get someone's dander up, it probably isn't radical enough.  If you try to get everyone to agree, you'll probably compromise so much that the value of the idea is lost.  Forget concensus.  Be brave and be prepared that there will be detractors.  There will be people who object to new ideas for lots of reasons.  Maybe it threatens their power structure, or they are jealous that they didn't think of it.  People can get very complacent with the status quo and change makes people nervous. But don't try to manage towards concensus or you'll find inertia holds you back.
  3. We've done it before and it didn't work
    While it's good to learn from the past, it's easy to become a prisoner of it.  Whenever someone complains that something has been tried before, try to think if there's something different today.  Maybe there can be a variation of an old idea, or perhaps a different execution plan. Or perhaps the market has changed.  But instead of criticizing an idea as being old, figure out a way to strengthen the idea. 
  4. No one has been successful doing it before
    This is the opposite of item 3 above.  If no one has done it, it doesn't mean that it won't work.  Maybe no one has been bold enough.  Or maybe no one thought of it yet.  If you want to get out on the bleeding edge, then you need to try things out before it's common knowledge.  How many people do you think told the founders of SugarCRM that no one has been successful with open source applications?  The truly successful companies, like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Intel have all broken new ground many times.  It's when they stop breaking new ground that you need to be concerned. 
  5. We do that already
    This is a great way to put people down and maintain the status quo.  Just maintain that we're already doing something like the suggestion.  If you find yourself putting down ideas as already being done see what you can do to add to the idea and make it better.
  6. The problem with that is...
    Some people like to play devil's advocate's so often that they should have horns and a pitchfork. They think that shooting down an idea is as good as coming up with one.  But it's not.  The role of devil's advocate can be valuable on occasion, when you are trying to evaluate competing good ideas, but it's a sure sign of a problem if too many people think their role is to be the gatekeeper to sainthood.  But don't mistake ruling out bad ideas as being as valuable as implementing new ideas.  There isn't a single great idea or great business that does not have problems.  But if you see your role as being the person who needs to point out problems, you will find that fewer and fewer people are willing to listen.  Life is too short to spend hanging out with the naysayers. 
  7. No one will like it
    Naysayers often seem to have perfect knowledge of what people like or don't like.  And they often use phrases like "everyone knows that..." or "no one will like it."  But I wonder, how can anyone know what everyone thinks?  Why not test it out?  Maybe it's true that many people will dislike something.  But perhaps some will absolutely love it and you can make those people happy.
  8. It will kill the company
    A great way to prevent the free-flow of ideas necessary for brainstorming is to polarize discussions.  I've often seen managers claim that their team will quit if a certain idea is pursued.  Talk about a conversation killer!  When you raise the stakes this high, naturally people become afraid of making any suggestions and you're left with the status quo. 

Since I only came up with 8 ideas for what should be a "Top 10" posting, perhaps others can add their own thoughts and ideas here.  I will create another posting later in the week on ways to brainstorm successfully.