Don't believe your hype

In today's world of constant self-promotion, it's pretty easy to fall into the trap of thinking that -- to steal an old saying -- your shit don't stink. For individuals (and startups) trying to get noticed in an ever-crowded landscape, a little overt promotion never hurt. In fact, it is required in order to get access to the air, water, and sunlight the nascent enterprise needs to succeed. The point here is that it's ok to exude confidence or even braggadocio as conditions merit; just don't let things get to the point where you believe your own hype.

Throughout my career, I've been in roles where I was the purveyor of reality. In short, this has meant that I have had to tell people "NO!" or at least tell them that their baby was ugly. I don't enjoy doing this, but it is a necessary evil when people start to drink too much of their own Kool-Aid.

Let's say that there is a startup company that launches a successful product. After a while they end up being so successful that they damage and take out the 800 pound gorilla of their industry. The company gains a loyal following and makes lots of money. It goes on to make other products that are successful as well. Yay! This is a good thing. Then, something strange happens: folks within the company convince themselves that they can release any old piece of craptacular junk and the market will rave about it. Boooo!

Here's a quick test to see if your company suffers from this ailment: ask "How will customers use this product/service?" and "Why is this product is compelling in light of the fact that several competitors (some startups and some more established) have superior products/services and solutions?" Your organization is surely infected if you get a response on the order of "People will buy it because we're cool and our stuff is great! These other companies can't touch us!"

To prevent this from happening, pay regular attention to what's going on outside your four walls!! This means making sure you have a solid understanding of your customers' needs, desires, and aspirations (Note: don't forget that these can change over time!) and that you know how your customers are using your product/service. It also means that you need to pay attention to the competitive landscape so that your organization and its offerings remain relevant. Obviously, startups need to play this last one carefully; too much focus on other companies detracts from being focused on getting your fledgling company off the ground. In a nutshell, once you get to the point of gaining success and notoriety, keep a good balance between hype and innovation.

If your organization has already fired up the Hypemaster 5000 and it's cranking on all cylinders, all is not lost. Get someone into the role of asking the tough questions. In theory, this should be a senior executive, but anyone with clout in the company can work. This person needs to be able to cut through all of the B.S. and get to the core of your company's value prop to customers. Then, s/he will need to influence the product teams to crank up real innovation to achieve better balance against the hype. Another critical must-do is establish a sense of urgency.

As I alluded to in my example above, the hype/innovation relationship typically gets out of whack in more established organizations because inertia and laziness set in. This is why scrappy, little startups can come along and knock the socks off of big, established enterprises. Other than tiers of bureaucracy, the principal difference between a startup and a "grown-up" company is that the startup will die if everyone onboard isn't rowing really hard and it neglects to respond to the currents of change. [OK, I'll stop with the water metaphors!] In other words, startups have a sense of urgency while big companies may not. I frequently use a role-playing technique to create that urgency. I'll tell people, "Imagine that the very survival of the company depended on you doing the right thing here today. Act like a startup: focus on the most important thing, do it, and move to the next important thing. If something doesn't work, revise or iterate, but keep moving!"

Fortunately for those big companies, death does not typically come overnight. Rather, it is more of a prolonged collapse -- followed by death if the situation remains without a fix for too long. Proceed with urgency, but don't panic. I know from personal experience that it is possible to affect change and improve an organization suffering from the hype/innovation imbalance. The change may be difficult and take a while, but it is important as the very survival of the company depends on it.

"Don't believe the hype...." -- Public Enemy

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