Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Filtering by Category: Thinking Differently

Working Whistle to Whistle

Overview

Part of the reason I left my job in management consulting was because I was completely burned out. When I started my job with the City of Detroit I knew I had to take a different approach toward work. Instead of working until work was done, I decided to work "whistle to whistle" - going as hard as I can during the work day and trying to avoid after-hours work.

SKILLS AND INSIGHTS GAINED

Ask for help from others – To get to the decision of working whistle to whistle, I sought advice from my wife. I have always admired her discipline to not working after hours, even though she always had plenty she could do in the evening. So I asked her why she didn't feel guilty about leaving her evenings work-free. She told me that she didn't feel guilty because she worked very hard and didn't waste time when she was at work. Her advice shaped my own philosophy.

Management matters – When I started to actively avoid after-hours work, it's not like my or my teams' targets became any less ambitious. Simply working more efficiently would never be enough. The real way to work smarter is to never work on low-value activities in the first place. That's now a bedrock belief in my philosophy about what good managers do - ensuring that their organizations and people only do work that actually achieves a result.

Focus on the result, not the process – When starting to work whistle to whistle, I started realizing that in previous jobs, I expended a lot of effort to satisfy the expectations of others even when it didn't make a difference for achieving a goal. For example, as a consultant I often worked for hours on complex presentations for meetings with partners even though the same result would have been reached with a simple chart. I no longer work just to keep up appearances.

IMPACT AND LESSONS LEARNED

The decision to work whistle to whistle has made a tremendous impact on my life. I've been able to work without burning out. It's just that simple. The lesson here is also simple, we do not have to accept the status quo when it's foul, we may choose to do something different.

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Reinventing How I Use Facebook

OVERVIEW

In my last semester of business school, I took a class called Transformational Leadership, with Professor Bob Quinn. As part of the class, we had to practice applying the principles of being a transformational leader weekly, to a situation in our personal or professional lives. One week, I decided to reinvent how I interacted on facebook.

SKILLS AND INSIGHTS GAINED

Small experiments work – I wanted to create more positive and fulfilling interactions on facebook, so I would feel less drained and narcissistic every time I scrolled through the app. I decided to post a personal, authentic question every day for a week. In the first week, I asked questions like “What do you love most about where you live?” and “What’s something you spend more time doing than the average person?”. After a week, the amount of people who engaged with my questions was astounding – I had close two two dozen thoughtful comments every day. It took me about 3 minutes and no money to launch this experiment, Putting something into the field for others to react to teaches you more than you can ever expect.

Pivot often – I changed my approach in several ways for the next few weeks after my initial experiment. I asked different types of question and provided encouragement in different ways. I perfected my posts’ timing and how many comments I insisted on having before I shared my own answer to the question. I sussed out which words tended to generate the best contagion, given facebook’s algorithms. The lesson I learned was simple: when you have a good idea, keep changing it until it’s a great idea. Then, keep working on it and never treat it as finished. The more you pivot, the more you learn and the better your results get.

Get out of simplicity’s way– I had a strong inclination to immediately build on the idea once I saw that people were enjoying my daily practice of posting a facebook question. I resisted the urge to make things complicated and it paid off. I tried a complex question one day and it stunk. Simplicity helps people understand things that are new. Sometimes, it’s just as important to get your own creativity and aspiration to build new things so that people can simply enjoy the innovation you’ve developed.

IMPACT AND LESSONS LEARNED

For most of my life, I’ve been taught that bigger and newer is better than smaller and older. That’s what consultants (and business students) are trained to do. I found value in quantity and complexity. Bigger was better, and that was that.

However, that’s not always how people work. Sometimes, people think differently. They value elegance and simplicity rather than features and novelty. Innovation and ingenuity don’t have to manifest in super-sized solutions, they can be small moves smartly made.

I’ve learned about the power of learning from simple experiments and I now take the “what if?” approach to much more of my work. Simply holding that radically different perspective – that values simplicity and experimentation – has accelerated my learning, broadened my thinking, and improved my ability to find creative solutions to new problems.

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Learning to Think With a "Customer Mindset"

OVERVIEW

In my last semester of business school, I decided to register for the pilot of an intensive leadership development course called, Ross Leaders Academy. This course integrated executive coaching, reflective learning, and a practicum in launching a business using the lean startup method. To learn the lean startup method, our team of 4 met every two weeks with a demanding pair of experienced coaches, who we were to treat as our company’s “Board of Directors.” During our meetings our coaches drilled us so that we would focus on understanding our customers, their most pressing problems, and what they value instead of rushing to build the coolest sounding solution.

Instead of doing the typical MBA exercise of best practices research, our coaches insisted that we interview potential customers directly.

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SKILLS AND AND INSIGHTS GAINED

Defining a Customer – Defining a specific customer is important because different customers have different problems requiring different solutions. Specifically defining a customer, however, is no easy task. Rules of thumb or adjectives like “small” or “new” are not good enough. Any reasonable person should be able take a list of companies and distinguish which companies are potential customers and which ones are not, using a description of the customer. It’s very difficult to develop a product that a customer will actually buy if you’re not exactly sure who they are.

Focusing on Customer Value – People don’t spend money on a product’s features. People spend money on things that give them something of value – like time, money, happiness, health, and the like. For example, car shoppers don’t buy anti-lock brakes because they find abstract value in the technology; they buy anti-lock breaks because they value safety and health. Knowing what a customer values is the key to knowing how to serve them. Before participating in the lean startup program I didn’t understand the important distinction between features and value.

Finding Their Real Problem – Every customer has a litany of problems but only a few of them are ones that they’d be willing to pay someone else to solve. What’s helpful to know is that the real problems are usually directly related to what that customer truly values. If a customer values time, for example, you have to keep asking about tasks that consume their time until you understand what their real problem is and why it exists. I’ve been humbled by how long it takes to get to this level of understanding, our team didn’t start having useful insights until we completed more than 30 interviews.

IMPACT AND LESSONS LEARNED

Having these insights about product-market fit and learning to think from the perspective of a customer has shifted how I approach problem solving. I realized that my mindset had shifted about two weeks before the end of the program, when thinking about a new business to help grocery shoppers identify if the foods they were buying had unhealthy food additives.

The old me would’ve started thinking about all the cool features the product could have and schemes to monetize it. Instead though, I found myself thinking and talking about who the specific customer was, and why they valued a diet free of chemicals. Instead of trying to think of all the people who valued the product, I thought instead about people who would care about it the most. Thinking this way helped me come up with ideas that I could’ve never thought of without a customer mindset.

In that moment, I realized that I had begun to internalize a customer mindset and that I would never look at products or business models the same way again.

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