Snow Melts from the Edges – Some Lessons from Buffer

Big changes seldom announce themselves conveniently at the conference table at headquarters. They bubble up, instead, at the ‘edges’ of the organization, where things are most exposed. This short story from Buffer illustrates.

In Seeing Around Corners, I make the point that it’s vital to get out to the edges of an organization if you want to really “see” where big changes are happening. It’s one of the reasons so many senior leaders get blindsided by changes they weren’t expecting. The more senior you are, unfortunately, the more your organization will try to prevent you from seeing and hearing the brutal truth. And the more successful one has been in the past, the less eager to hear potential bad news.

Snow Melt meetings at Buffer

I was tickled pink, therefore, when my friend Aidan McCullen of The Innovation Show podcast, sent me a link to this article by Buffer co-founder and CEO Joel Gascoigne on the very topic of snow melting!  

The Buffer founding story is one that I’ve admired for a while. As he tells it, Gascoigne was hunting for a solution to a problem he had himself – having an inconsistent presence on social media – and used his skills at programming web sites to determine whether paying customers might possibly have a similar problem. He programmed a couple of landing pages to do some product / market fit testing and eventually, as legend has it, went from an idea to a functioning product in 7 weeks!

Gascoigne had exactly the right reaction to reading about snow melting in Seeing Around Corners, which was to realize that when it came to talking with the people at the edges, he wasn’t as on top of those conversations as he’d like to be. Out of some of those meetings came the idea for a specific set of activities Buffer would drive to help its small business customers struggling in the COVID19 era. The company dedicated $500,000 to COVID relief, extended their free trial period, offered complementary upgrades and otherwise let their customers know that Buffer would be there for them.

This has become more than just lip service – as Gascoigne says in his blog, “When I’m shaping our overall strategy, it’s essential that I have regular contact with folks from all different parts of the organization. I’ve realized, therefore, that spending time with people I don’t regularly work with is a vital part of my role, now and always. It’s a way to recognize upcoming inflection points sooner and to act on them earlier. In a sense, by spending time at the edges, I develop an ability to “see the future”.

Some questions to ask yourself

In the book, I emphasize that getting out to the edges, where small changes are starting to happen, doesn’t have to be difficult or terribly time consuming. It does require some time, curiosity and a hunger to know what’s really going on. There are some good questions you can ask yourself.

1. Do I personally make time for direct exposure to how customers experienced my business? Visit a store – unannounced. Take a call or two on the help line. Go see what your customer service experience is really like.  

2. Am I really bringing diverse points of view to bear on my decisions? All too often, senior level decisions are made by lookalike groups of executives. Research shows pretty conclusively that diverse teams make better, richer decisions.  

3. Do I get out of the building enough? My friend Steve Blank is fond of saying, “there are no answers in the building!” He recalls a humbling dressing-down he experienced early in his career when the CEO of the startup he had joined pointed out (quite rightly) that he had no answers.  

4. Am I providing incentives for people to bring me uncomfortable news? All too often, senior leaders (wittingly or not) make it really clear that unpleasant news is not welcome. This behavior has been blamed for Intel’s current woes and for the downfall of a once-stellar track record at General Electric.   

5. Am I making sure we aren’t in denial? Bad news, particularly coming on the heels of great success, can be difficult to swallow. The story of Blackberry’s ruin in the face of the iPhone and Android onslaught has that slow-train-wreck happening vibe, even as it’s leaders denied there was a problem. 

The answers are out there – but you may need to get to the edges to find them

As I’ve researched companies navigating inflection points, some successfully and others not so much, one characteristic that does seem to make an enormous difference is the openness of leadership to uncomfortable, disconfirming news. By combining curiosity with a deliberate effort to get out to the edges, you’re much more likely to end up on the right end of an inflection point.

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