Lean Business: Unleashing the (task) Force Mike | January 26th, 2015

When I think about the word “taskforce,” what comes to mind is a small group of people charged with accomplishing a specific duty or chore. However, it’s when I looked more closely at the word, in its component parts, that an insight began to take form. A task is an activity that is to be accomplished within a defined period of time or by a deadline to work towards work-related goals. Force is typically defined as a measure of strength or energy, but it’s the root of the word that caught my attention; it derives from old Norse and its original meaning was a waterfall. What a wonderful image: a cascade of energy, but with a specific purpose.

A key aspect of Lean Management is to work effectively with limited resources and small teams. And for most small companies, working with small teams, capacity management is one of the great challenges; the to-do list is always too long, and the dev queue is ever in need of prioritization. The best small businesses become adept at distinguishing between the truly important work needed to improve the product, serve the customers, and increase profitability, while learning how to identify the less-critical tasks that are “nice-to-haves,” but are by no means necessary for success.

Over the last couple of years at crowdSPRING, we have learned to leverage the power and energy of the Task Force, a wonderful tool that has helped us greatly with capacity management challenges. Periodically we convene small teams tasked with very specific goals: “improve customer satisfaction,” “increase site-wide conversion,” “develop a fair  and meaningful reputation system,” “identify new back-end admin tools,” and so forth. The teams that are assigned these duties follow our own best practices and follow a templatized approach to the work. Typically, theTask Force has 2-3 weeks (usually requiring 3-4 meetings) to develop a report to be presented to management, as well as the team as a whole, with the results of their study and their recommendations. Obviously, the assignment theTask Force is tackling will define their approach, but their goal is always the same: present their research, data, and conclusions along with the recommended action items and a timeline for accomplishing these. Sometimes it can take months to accomplish the work of implementing the recommendations, but more often the time from first meeting to launch is a matter of weeks.

Here are a few of the best practices we have developed for our own teams; of course your own needs will be different, your own problem/solution sets unique to your business, but in general these tips should serve you well as you launch your own versions of the Tsk Force!

  • Keep it small. A committee of 4 people is probably the largest you want your Task Force to be; a smaller group works faster and communicates better. 4 is also a good number when it comes to dividing up the work the force is tasked with performing, just be sure that your group includes at least one strong number-cruncher, one good writer, as well as one person with solid skills at presentation. In general the work will fall into XXX key areas: research, number-crunching or analysis, development of recommendations, and the fashioning of a report and/or presentation.
  • Make your Task Force diverse. Whenever possible, Task Force members should be drawn from across your organization. This is not to say that some task forces should be from within one department or functional area (clearly some should), but these small committees tend to be stronger when they are made up of people with varying perspectives, backgrounds, and skill-sets. The recommendations the Task Force produces will be stronger if they are drawn from a variety of outlooks and will tend to be less biased if individuals from different verticals contribute.
  • Set specific goals. The very first job is to define and clarify the goal of the Task Force. Sometimes this will be clear from the inception, other times it will take the entire first meeting just to define. Try to keep the assignment and goals as simple as possible; some examples might be, “Increase margins” or “Reduce refund rates” or “Develop a tool for ____.” If the Task Force can simplify it’s objective, it will greatly simplify the work, speed the entire process, and increase the probability that the effort will be a success.
  • Start immediately. Once the goal is defined, schedule the first meeting of theTask Force for tomorrow. Better yet today. When a problem is identified and determined to be important enough to devote a small group’s capacity there is no reason to keep things waiting. While the iron is hot, the Task Force should get to work and focus in as quickly and efficiently as they can.
  • Have a leader. A leader for the task Force has to be selected by the team itself and usually the choice is obvious. It might be the most senior manager on the Task Force who takes on the role or it might be the person will has already undertaken key work involved, or it might be the person with the greatest expertise or passion for the subject matter. In any case, someone has to take on the job of chairing the committee, supervising the work, overseeing the report, and making the presentation. The leader has the responsibility to keep things moving, to schedule the meetings, and to push the agenda.
  • Do it quickly. Among the aims of the Task Force strategy is to streamline processes, push changes briskly, and implement recommendations straightaway. The first step in achieving these intentions is to make the work of the Task Force itself  as efficient and fast as possible. Try to keep the number of meetings to a minimum, limit the length of each meeting, require the members to turn their work around swiftly. The hope is that the entire process take 1-2 weeks from inception to final  presentation. Set a fast pace with the Task Force and try to follow up on their recommendations even faster!

 

Illustration, Wikimedia Commons: Yoshitsune Falls, from the series Famous Waterfalls in Various Provinces – Google Art Project.jpg

Twitter Link Roundup #253 – Wonderful resources for Small Business, Startups, and Design! Mike | January 23rd, 2015

The Super Bowl is one week away and boy are we excited! Not so much abut the game, or the ads, or the half-time spectacle, but rather for the inevitable swipes, jokes, and satire that will follow. Get warmed up with this video and learn what the players, coaches, and officials are really saying down there on the field!

So… read my lips: it’s time for our weekly roundup! Great links and articles we shared with you over the past week on our  crowdSPRING Twitter account (as well as my own Twitter account). We do like to talk about logo design, web design, startups, entrepreneurship, small business, leadership, social media, marketing, economics and other interesting stuff! I hope you enjoy!

smallbusinessblog

Hold Hands and Leverage Your Customer Service |crowdSPRING Blog  – crowdspring.co/1yd8zcN

Ways to Say ‘No’ That Won’t Damage Business or Relationships crowdspring.co/1rTiQKj

What Doesn’t Seem Like Work? crowdspring.co/1BPjPNU

Seriously Easy Ways to Spark Your Creative Energy crowdspring.co/1KTZNWu

MBA: Worth Your Time or Money? crowdspring.co/1xoOekN

startupsblog

The Best Colleges for Entrepreneurs crowdspring.co/1yuLWmi

How To Work With Different Productivity Styles | Fast Company – crowdspring.co/14mLE3A

A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Chris Dixon About Venture Capital and Startups | by @trengriffin -buff.ly/1CoV2OL

Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others | NYT – buff.ly/1ITJDKI

Get the Boss to Buy In – HBR crowdspring.co/14mLDMV

Help Your Overwhelmed, Stressed-Out Team – HBR crowdspring.co/1CoWDUL

Quotes to Inspire Great Team Productivity crowdspring.co/17b4trH

The Characteristics of the Most Successful Teams | by @ttunguzbuff.ly/1BGCvAO

The Authenticity Paradox – HBR crowdspring.co/1rTiPWJ

Immigrant entrepreneurs boost ‘main streets’ in Nashville crowdspring.co/1KTZNWp

How to Manage the Wall Street Roller Coaster crowdspring.co/1BwA4NM

Technology’s Impact on Workers | Pew Research Center – crowdspring.co/1BwA7Jp

Maynard Webb, Yahoo’s Chairman: Even the Best Teams Can Be Better crowdspring.co/1AsM3xs

Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions crowdspring.co/14mLGbB

Things That Separate the Great Entrepreneurs From the Rest crowdspring.co/1KU0fnE

The Year in Startup Funding (Infographic) crowdspring.co/1DklAli

This Entrepreneur Is Making His Own Waves crowdspring.co/1sRqK7m

You’ll Never Control Expenses If Your Team Doesn’t Know What Anything Costs crowdspring.co/15g86fg

11 hacks to get meetings with investors in Silicon Valley — Medium crowdspring.co/1CoYdWt

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Fresh from the SPRING: Konstantin Audree | January 21st, 2015

When perusing our galleries here on crowdSPRING, we see some amazing work submitted in the projects. Today, we noticed this gem submitted in this logo project.

Let us start the slow clap for Konstantin. Check out more great work on Konstantin’s profile page.

Nicely done, Konstantin, nicely done!

FFS-Konstantin

Small Business and Startups: Hold Hands and Leverage Your Customer Service Mike | January 19th, 2015

From Day One we viewed crowdSPRING as the ultimate light-touch, self-serve, highly scalable internet business. We determined that we would build the product and out website such that even the least sophisticated visitor could learn for themselves how the system worked and could then take self-led actions to source the creative services they came looking for. Our idea was that a very small team could operate a two-sided e-commerce marketplace and serve a large community of users by providing powerful tools and features, offering great educational content at every turn, and by being at the ready to very quickly answer their questions and solve their problems when they came to us looking for help.

Sounds reasonable, right? Well we’ve learned a great deal through the years, and while we have done a spectacular job at building the tools that users want and responding with lightning quickness when they ask for help, we have done a poor job at building strong and lasting relationships with many of our customers. This is not to say that users haven’t been loyal to us and that we haven’t steadily increased the lifetime value of our customers. Rather, it is to say that we have missed an important opportunity to connect in a simple and meaningful way, by making one material adjustment to our approach to customer service. For us 2015 will be the year of proactive service; instead of waiting for them to reach out to us when they have a question or need an issue resolved, we are building tools and processes that allow our team to energetically reach out to customers on the site to draw them into conversation, to actively educate them about our service, and to build relationships. In other words, we have determined that we are in the hand-holding business and that every single customer on our site is worthy of our attention and our effort to engage.

To do this, we have looked hard at how we can identify potential customers amongst the visitors to the site, how we can make an initial contact with them, and how to take that contact from the “Just saying Hi” stage, through the full process of drafting, posting, managing, and completing a crowdSPRING project. AND (perhaps most importantly) how we can make this rather profound change leveraging the assets we already possess. To do this we determined would take four basic steps: 1) identify those who are most likely to be customers, 2) find ways to politely and respectfully make contact with them, 3) educate our new friends about how things work here guide them through a complex process , and 4) surprise and delight with high-quality service and meaningful gestures.

1.Force them to raise their hand.
The first problem we had to attack was finding ways to identify among thousands of visitors to the site, those that are most probably potential customers. Like all internet businesses, we know little about a new visitor to the site; we can figure out where in the world they are, we can make some assumptions about their demographics, we can scan to see if their browsers contain any relevant cookies, but other than that we don’t know for sure who they are or why they came. One way to find out is to do something very simple: ask them! To that end we have implemented tools that, based on behavior, will take a moment to interrupt a visitor to ask them if they are willing to share with us a bit of information. Those that choose to do so are clearly interested enough in our offerings to answer a couple of quick questions and provide us their contact data. Those that aren’t willing are welcome to continue exploring on their own.  The idea is that the people we are least interested in getting to know are those that decline to share. It’s those that do agree to share information with us that we value the most and that we are focused on serving.

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Twitter Link Roundup #252 – Sweet resources for Small Business, Startups, and Design! Mike | January 16th, 2015

Open office plans work for many small companies but some teams just do not function well no matter what the office looks like. Here is one company (and one worker) that struggles with the issues common to all of us. Just with some unique personality twists – enjoy!

But enough about office life – it’s time for our weekly roundup! Great links and articles we shared with you over the past week on our  crowdSPRING Twitter account (as well as my own Twitter account). We do like to talk about logo design, web design, startups, entrepreneurship, small business, leadership, social media, marketing, economics and other interesting stuff! I hope you enjoy!

smallbusinessblog

MBA: Worth Your Time or Money? crowdspring.co/1xoOekN

Technology’s Impact on Workers | Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project – crowdspring.co/1BwA7Jp

startupsblog

Can A Cup Of Coffee Make Workers Less Likely To Lie? | Co.Design | business + design

Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions crowdspring.co/14mLGbB

The Most Controversial Productivity Hack: Getting High At Work | Fast Company | Business + Innovationcrowdspring.co/14mJPn6

What’s Love Got to Do With It? | Inc -buff.ly/1Byddnd

What Maslow’s Hierarchy Won’t Tell You About Motivation | HBR – buff.ly/17HF2Ou

9 Quotes to Inspire Great Team Productivity crowdspring.co/17b4trH

The Authenticity Paradox – HBR crowdspring.co/1rTiPWJ

Communicating Values: Show, don’t Tell – buff.ly/1xrfPN0

While toiling over the perfect startup name, keep in mind there’s a company called BlaBlaCar that’s raised over $100M pic.twitter.com/ulzyUDfe64

The Rising Table Stakes in SaaS | by @ttunguzbuff.ly/1DHbwFY

Get the Boss to Buy In – HBR crowdspring.co/14mLDMV

Maynard Webb, Yahoo’s Chairman: Even the Best Teams Can Be Better crowdspring.co/1AsM3xs

5 things Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Charlie Hebdo | crowdSPRING Blog – crowdspring.co/14kNPDZ

Here’s the Advice I Give All of Our First Time Founders | First Round – buff.ly/1xrEwJt

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Fresh from the SPRING: niteshthapa Audree | January 14th, 2015

When perusing our galleries here on crowdSPRING, we see some amazing work submitted in the projects. Today, we noticed this gem submitted in this logo project.

Let us start the slow clap for niteshthapa. Check out more great work on niteshthapa’s profile page.

Nicely done, niteshthapa, nicely done!

FFS-Niteshthapa

5 things Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Charlie Hebdo Mike | January 12th, 2015

Ugh. We woke up one morning last week to the worst of news: 12 people had been slaughtered in Paris for saying what they felt needed saying, for challenging the status quo, and for pursuing a business model they had built over decades.

This news touched us at crowdSPRING in a meaningful way: the people who were gunned down were artists. Creative people who practice their craft, and use artwork to communicate ideas are the people we celebrate every day and work hard to support through our business model and our community. It is shocking and saddening that we have lost these fine artists to a warped ideology of revenge and paranoia.

So what do we do here? My answer is the same as ever: we learn. We take the time to  discover what it is that these people did. How they lived their lives and how they ran their enterprise. We take lessons from the things they did everyday and the conviction with which they did it. So, here are 10 things that we can all learn from Charlie Hebdo and the wonderful artists who gave their lives on that awful day.

1. Believe.
Charlie Hebdo was a company that believed in what it did. Their mission was simple and clear: to satirize, to offend, and to push back against what they viewed as the hypocrisy of organized religions, and of authority of any kind. They were passionate in the pursuit of their belief and they did it with humor and creativity. We can all learn a great deal about how we run our own businesses from their  lesson: approach your work with ardor and run your own company based on the beliefs you hold and the values you cherish.

2. Focus.
As managers we understand the importance of staying focused, whether it is on the larger picture and your strategic approach to your business, or on the small things we do everyday. By maintaining our focus on what we do, we can be more productive and reach our goals more quickly. The management and artists at Charlie Hebdo clearly understood this and it was displayed with every issue they published and every eye they poked their stick into. By clearly defining their mission and focusing intently on carrying it out, they were able to build a brand and carve out a distinct space in the French media landscape.

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Twitter Link Roundup #251 – Cool ideas about Small Business, Startups, and Design! Mike | January 9th, 2015

Tragedy will not stop the creative mind nor the creative process.

It’s time once more for our weekly roundup! Great links and articles we shared with you over the past week on our  crowdSPRING Twitter account (as well as my own Twitter account). We do like to talk about logo design, web design, startups, entrepreneurship, small business, leadership, social media, marketing, economics and other interesting stuff! I hope you enjoy!

smallbusinessblog

Small Businesses and Startups – 3 New Years Reflections and Resolutions | crowdSPRING Blog – crowdspring.co/14niIbA

Fast–And Cheap!–Ways To Make Your Office Space More Productive | Fast Company | Business + Innovationcrowdspring.co/1JWVWaJ

A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Steve Jobs about Business | by @trengriffinbuff.ly/1xy7FsN

startupsblog

Why Career Development And Advancement Aren’t The Same Thing | Fast Company | Business + Innovationcrowdspring.co/1BwA14h

For Leaders, Looking Healthy Matters More than Looking Smart | HBR -buff.ly/1vSlc8y

11 Simple Ways To Push Your Creative Boundaries | Fast Company | Business + Innovationcrowdspring.co/1A3eLDy

Self-made wealth in America: Robber barons and silicon sultans | The Economist -buff.ly/1KktVKk

The New Science of Building Great Teams | HBR – buff.ly/1AovjWH

8 Things That Will Immediately Make Your Company More Sellable (Long Before You Sell)crowdspring.co/1489Syk

How Successful People Stay Calm – Business Insider crowdspring.co/1xrna2M

Things I’ve Learned from Doug Leone About Startups & Venture Capital | by @trengriffin -buff.ly/1wo39Hu

Why Leading and Managing Are Two Very Different Things crowdspring.co/1xrnaj5

What I Learned About Life After Interviewing 80 Highly Successful People | by @jaltucher -buff.ly/1DndD1o

7 New Habits Of Highly Successful People | Fast Company | Business + Innovation crowdspring.co/14mLARp

Even Scientists Think You’re Working Too Early in the Morning crowdspring.co/14mLAks

Reasons to Ignore the News and Boost Productivity crowdspring.co/1w4igWz

Questions to Know if You Should Jump on an Opportunity crowdspring.co/1Bx7V8W

12 Tech Tools Productivity Experts Can’t Live Without | Fast Company | Business + Innovationcrowdspring.co/1DklpGF

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Fresh from the SPRING: Dogwings Audree | January 7th, 2015

When perusing our galleries here on crowdSPRING, we see some amazing work submitted in the projects. Today, we noticed this gem submitted in this logo project.

Let us start the slow clap for Dogwings. Check out more great work on Dogwings’ profile page.

Nicely done, Dogwings, nicely done!

FFS-Dogwings

 

 

Small Businesses and Startups – 3 New Years Reflections and Resolutions Mike | January 5th, 2015

Alright then. Hangover from New Years eve is gone these past few days. The last long weekend of the holidays is done. And now, once again, we turn our gaze lovingly back to our business, our customers, and our team. As managers, we are so focused on the moment at hand, the task that needs accomplishing, the strategy that needs executing, the data that needs analyzing, that we often neglect to take time to simply reflect. Reflection is a critical activity for effective managers and strong leaders and there are natural moments for the act of contemplation that sometimes feels like a luxury we simply can’t afford.

We’ve written before about New Year resolutions in the context of business and management, but this year I want to put these into more of a ruminative  frame. In other words, let my reflection on each of these drive my resolve to improve each.

As a manager some days I do a pretty good job while on others my performance may be poor or ineffectual. So I have chosen 3 areas where I know I can improve, where I can strengthen my focus, and where I can change things up with the goal of advancing, refining, or reviving specific aspects of the business. I’d love to hear your own reflections and thoughts on these or on your own reflections and resolutions.

1. Focus on the customerAs the manager of an internet business, our approach has always been “light-touch” and our assumption has always been biased towards “self-serve.” Like many internet businesses we have built the company around the assumptions of scalability, and that necessarily means finding ways to serve a large customer base with a small team. We’ve preached and practiced the lean approach to business and, while I still strongly believe in it, I have come to the conclusion that we haven’t done a good job connecting with and engaging our customers. People tend to buy more from, and return more often to, companies they feel a strong connection to. At crowdSPRING we are resolved to make 2015 the year of customer relationships; we will not be satisfied to simply wait for our users to contact us with a question the need answered or a problem they need resolved. Rather we will reach out proactively, work hard to build and maintain relationships, hold our customer’s hands and help them answer those questions before they are formulated and solve those problems before they arise. The goals are improved conversion rates, increased customer satisfaction, and greater word-of-mouth. We will collect data on these factors as the year progresses and adjust our approach as we go.

2. Support the team. I have always enjoyed and dreaded the year-end reviews we do for each member of the team here. We discuss the year that is closing, reflect together on each person’s growth and development, talk about whether the goals we set last year have been achieved and what new goals we might set for the year to come. While my door is always open to any discussions with any team member, the end of year review is a great time to offer myself up for and feedback, positive or negative, that they may want to share and I actively encourage them to do so. What’s interesting is that there is always something to be learned and there is always something shared that catches me by surprise. Why is that? I don’t have the answer to that question, but I have resolved that in 2015, I will spend more time focused on the team; give more thought to what they might need from me; consider more and better ways to communicate. The goal is that at next year’s reviews, none of the feedback should come as a surprise and none of the criticism be about something I was not aware of. I intend to keep my finger more firmly on the pulse of the team and be way more proactive about soliciting their thoughts and ideas about the company, the product, and my own performance.

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