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Twitter started as a hunch. Are you trusting yours? [w/ video]

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At the end of this post is a great video of Evan Williams, CEO of Twitter, talking about how it all started out as a hunch.  I’ll bet you’re working on something right now that might have a breakthrough if you tried out one of your hunches.  Here’s my hunch story and then the video of @ev.

In 2004 I had to get eight thousand overworked middle managers to schedule a training day they hadn’t asked for, show up for that training 2-3 months later, and not cancel, reschedule, or mysteriously “get the flu” when the day arrived. If even a small percentage of them no-showed or rescheduled, it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Either my company would wind up running make-up sessions for free to fulfill our contract, or the client would have to pay extra because the original sessions hadn’t covered everybody.

My buddy Jason Gore and I locked ourselves in a room all day with two of our clients to figure out how to make this work. For hours on end we talked ourselves into and out of various options.  We tried mandated attendance dates – seemingly high control but also high risk of no-shows.  What about letting everyone pick their own date?  Not practical, e.g. if all eight thousand wanted to attend on the same day. It was one of those meetings where after the first few hours your brain starts to feel like mush and the whiteboards are covered with increasingly meaningless sentence fragments (“initiative vs. yield!!”). Outside we could see the parking lot emptying, and the options for buoying our dwindling blood sugar were vending machine potato chips and Oreo three-packs. We called it quits for the night, convinced we’d tried every possible approach and that they all had some fatal flaw.

Around this time I’d been reading about complexity theory and self-organizing systems like markets. In a distracted, rambling tone I wondered aloud to my boss Phil whether there was some connection between complex systems and our training scheduling problem. We were driving through Virginia at night and I think I literally said to him “I know this is too crazy to actually work but…what if we established some kind of ‘market’ for the seats in the training? Like if we gave everybody some kind of token or something, maybe with provisional training dates, and if they didn’t like it, they could just find someone else to trade with. That way we don’t have to figure it all out, we just set up a little ecosystem of sorts and let them figure it out.” In his typically wise and laid back way, Phil neither dismissed the idea nor insisted that I immediately resolve every detail of it. We continued our drive and leisurely conversation until we got to our hotel that night.

The next day, something like a market was exactly what we settled on to solve the scheduling problem.  Of course there were more hair-raising turns to actually get all the players to buy into that idea and make it work.  We needed a big chunk of time in the company’s upcoming Departmental VP meeting to hash out the schedule.  But we found out that meeting was scheduled for the next day.  And the VP’s knew nothing about the training yet.  We had a matter of hours to “sell” the VP’s on the training, get onto their packed meeting agenda, and find out when would be a good time for a few thousand of their staff to take a day away from work.  No problem! The company had gone from 2,000 employees to 20,000 in a few years and, yeah, ‘time for training’ was a laugh-in-your-face kind of concept at that point.

As we sprinted through our power-schmoozing of the executives and their all-important assistants, I thought ahead to the VP meeting the next day.  I remembered the advice of the facilitation gurus who’d mentored me at Interaction Associates.  They’d taught me that for any complex group problem-solving, you had to focus everyone on one shiny visual at the front of the room, and not let people space out flipping through printed handouts.

I realized that if we had each VP staring down at their own copy of the training schedule, the meeting would likely fall apart.  I could imagine the scene, heavy with the pregnant silence of unvoiced skepticism (“What the hell’s this training for anyway?” “You mean every single salaried employee‘s gonna do it?” “The whole company in the next three months??”) I pictured them quietly turning pages until the first one finally said “Yeah…I don’t think these dates are gonna work for my department.”  I knew if those words were spoken, we’d be sunk. One objection would be followed by another and another until we were kicked out and told to “think it all through again from the beginning.” The VP’s could sit back, content in the knowledge that their hard-nosed realism had prevented what had obviously been a train-wreck in the making.  If they were lucky the whole idea might just go away without further disruption to the real work of managing their phenomenal growth.

Fast forward to 1 am that night, the scene of the final hunch. To prevent “training date organ rejection” I had roped my client Julie into helping execute another of my “I know this might seem weird, but….” ideas.  I wanted the visual training schedule at the front of the VP meeting to be big.  Like, airplane-hangar-wallpaper big.  We were at the local Kinko’s getting them made up and laminated, so punchy that I’m sure the copy crew thought we’d been out partying.  I think we had to put the back seats of the car down to cart them out of there.  But the underlying message we hoped the huge graphics would convey was “Getting everyone through this quickly and cheaply is a shared task. If you don’t like your dates, the solution to that problem is to trade amongst yourselves.”

In the end, all these hunches paid off and it worked. I’m sure you guessed that, given that I’m using this story to illustrate my point.  But don’t just take my word for it, listen to Ev talking about how Twitter started off as a hunch:

Now it’s your turn.  What are you most passionate about right now, and what’s your hunch that’s “so crazy it would probably never work?” How would you start to act on it? Who can support you, and how?

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Lisa Hickey

    It’s funny, but my biggest hunch right now is actually about Twitter – that because it is both a conversational tool and a broadcasting medium that it will fundamentally shape the future of marketing. I think the the brands that can figure this out will be the ones that really succeed in the years to come.

    I like the way you showed how you were able to apply diffent things you’ve learned across your story. Also, I’ve been studying the reasons why ideas spread across groups of people. One thought is that then people are able to become a part of the idea, they are more likely to share it. Your solution allowed people to do just that.

    Thank you.

  • ajpape

    Lisa thanks for your comment!

    I share you hunch about Twitter. I’m betting on it. It’s like this huge swarm of good people, good intentions, good ideas, and crazy experiments. Like an exciting movie that we’re all in and creating together. Or a really great game.

    Glad we connected, see you on Twitter campus!

  • Erick B

    I didn’t know you were such a good writer…maybe I should be reading your blog more often…you thought leader you! That’s some good shizz your spouting about. BLOG ON!

  • Rax Lakhani

    AJ

    What an awesome post! You’ve highlighted some effective thought processes which come into play when planning complex groupproblem-solving.

    ‘Hunches’ are traditionally perceived as guesses or ‘feelings’ not based on fact. However, I think that hunches come out of instinctive reflexes of knowledge which is acquired up over a period of time. Otherwise put, hunches are based on cumulative knowledge and experiences.

    It’s clear from your post that you have tonnes of experience which (lucky for us) you’ve decided to share!

    Brilliant blog… now write a book. Amazon top-seller… guaranteed!

  • Trish McFarlane

    Just found your blog and I absolutely love it! I’m excited to read through the archives. This post is one that grabbed my attention right away. Like you, I believe in listening to my “hunches”.
    Recently, I had a hunch about HR professionals. There are so many conferences that cover all the legal aspects of HR, benefits, recruiting, etc. What I thought they were missing is a focus on how social media can be used by HR pros to be more effective in their roles. My hunch was that if I created something that would address this deficiency, people would be as passionate as I am about it and flock to it.
    That hunch turned into a movement of HR bloggers who want an “unconference” to focus on social media for HR. I’m now collaborating with people I met on Twitter and the conference is coming up in November 2009. If I hadn’t listened to that little voice inside, or if I hadn’t been willing to create something to fill the void I found, I would still be here only learning about what I’ve always learned about.
    Keep up the great work. I’m excited to see what you write going forward.

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