Friday, May 30, 2008

"Communication Lessons From the Deaf" - one week in

I've been thinking a lot about the communication lessons post I did earlier in the week, and the article that inspired it. I've been trying to employ the principles and become a better listener and communicator. Here are the basic lessons:

  1. Look people in the eye when engaging in conversation
  2. Don't interrupt
  3. Say what you mean as simply as possible
  4. Stay focused
They sound simple, but are very difficult to implement, especially when you've developed deep habits of multitasking, jumping to conclusions, and talking around a subject. Here are some specific things I'm doing to try to implement the lessons.

I am trying very hard to hear people out, to let them finish their thoughts (and even allow a little silence afterward) before I talk. I'm finding this yields a very different conversation, one with longer statements, but less misunderstanding and frustration, like the article says.

I've taken a couple of steps to try to stay focused. I do a lot of my work on the phone. When I'm on a call now, I leave my desk and sit in a reading chair. In other words--I leave the computer, which is the biggest multitasking temptation out there. I also refrain from taking notes till a phone call is over. This is quite difficult for me. My notes are a bit of a mess, but I'm learning that hearing and absorbing everything that's said is better than having perfect notes--since perfect notes by their nature can't capture everything in a dialogue.

But the hardest by far is #3. Saying what you mean. In that I envy my former boss, a Swede, who was very direct and "crisp," to use his term. Even though he sometimes could rub you the wrong way, you never, ever were unclear about what he wanted, what he thought, or what he meant to say.

So I've still got to work on that.

I'll report on progress again next week.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Improving the opportunities for women to lead

My recent post on overlooked female business gurus attracted some attention, not least from the gurus themselves. The nature of the emails we exchanged was around when women's representation in business leadership would start to resemble their representation in society. One dialogue went like this:

Me: In the long run, demographics are telling us there are more women college graduates than men and that trend appears to be continuing. So we'll see more women thinkers acknowledged by the establishment, partially because the establishment will be more female. It won't happen fast enough, but it'll happen.

Overlooked guru: I’m not sure how much I think that things will change. If you look at all the people quoted in teams and leadership articles most are male. It is not clear what will make things change—will the establishment really become female with demographic change? I do hope so.

Some more insight on the general issue of driving more female leadership into the workforce appears in this month's Harvard Business Review. In two Foresight articles ("Stopping the Exodus of Women in Science" and "One Reason Women Don't Make It to the C-Suite"), the authors point out conflicts between long-standing business cultures and traditions and demands on women's time, priorities and mental energy.

"Stopping the Exodus" blames a macho science and technology culture, "extreme jobs," and other factors for driving qualified women out of the industry. The authors (Sylvia Ann Hewlett--who should have been on the overlooked gurus list--Carolyn Buck Luce, and Lisa Servon) illustrate steps some companies are taking to improve the situation, including connecting women technologists to each other and to mentors to create a stronger support community. Starkly, there's no mention of trying to change the hero culture or redesigning tech jobs to make them less extreme.

"One Reason Women Don't" discusses career paths that have evolved in companies over decades, which place future C-levels into the most demanding and draining jobs in their forties. This rite of passage comes at the worst possible time for women, who are typically dealing with intense demands at home from pre-teen and adolescent children (and from husbands on the same track). The author, Dr. Louann Brizendine, recommends breaking this pattern and creating a new path, on which women leaders can defer that rite of passage to a time, say in their fifties, when they are able and eager to take it on.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Shop Talk Podcast #9 - Francis Ten of West Indian Girl on Today's Music Business

For the latest edition of the podcast, we're talking the business of music. It's changed dramatically since the boom days of the late 1990's, when Napster hadn't yet been born and CD sales were at their peak. Now, music is easier to download free than to purchase.

In spite of these obstacles, the music world is more open to new voices than it's ever been. Making a living, though, has gotten harder.

Francis Ten is the bassist for West Indian Girl and also manages the group's business operations. West Indian Girl is based in Los Angeles and its latest album 4th and Wall was released in late 2007.

In a wide-ranging, fun (and funny) discussion, we talk about "revenue streams," MySpace, and why music is different from t-shirts.

And check out Fran's very personal and human response to the question of acquiring music free via filesharing rather than purchasing it. (Some similarly nuanced sentiments can be found in this post from consumer-electronics columnist and author David Pogue.)

The podcast is here (right-click to download).

(Intro and Outro music: "Up the Coast," from West Indian Girl's latest album 4th and Wall.)

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Twitter and "Every Minute Accounted For"

I've been using Twitter for the last several weeks and I find it interesting, though I'm not yet at the point where I see breakthrough applications for it. They may be out there; I'm just not experienced enough to see them.

(For the uninitiated, Twitter is a micro-blogging tool that allows you to send 140-character notes from your PC or mobile phone, and for others to view them. You are asked a simple question: "What are you doing?" and your answer is broadcast to the community. You can also subscribe to others' Tweets.)

It's such a simple and open tool that the possibilities for using it are almost limitless. It may go without saying that most of the applications will be better at wasting time than improving productivity. Yet, Twitter has real potential to increase connectedness.

For example, I work with a team of people that are spread out across the US, UK and Ireland, and frequently shift from one location to another. It would be helpful to have Tweets updating where they are so that I can know when to call them (given that there is a 6-hour difference between Chicago and England), or when they're in transit.

You can imagine a million such applications. And right now hundreds (thousands?) of people are doing just that.

I find it fascinating that answering the question "What are you doing?" over and over again can create a life narrative--an autobiography of trivia, as it were. Which reminded me of an article I read in Harper's Magazine more than ten years ago about a guy, Robert Shields, who kept a moment-to-moment diary for more than twenty years ("Every Minute Accounted For" by David Isay--access free with magazine subscription). A sample is below:

10:00-10:05 I groomed my hair with a scrub brush
10:05-10:10 I fed the cat with tinned cat food
10:10-10:20 I dressed in black Haband trousers, a pastel-blue Bon Marche shirt, the blue Haband blazer with simulated silver buttons, both hearing aids, eyeglasses, and the 14-degree Masonic ring.

Two thoughts occurred to me. One: Shields could really have benefited from Twitter. And two: is Twitter growing more Robert Shieldses? How many people out there are notating their lives down to the minute and sharing them with the world?

The last paragraph of the Harper's article poignantly explains why anyone might want to leave such a record. (It is from a passage in the diary where Shields describes an interview with Isay, the author.)

I said I did not know why I kept it, especially since it is doubtful if anyone would ever read it. It is a compulsion. [Isay] asked whether I intended to keep it up until I die and I said yes. It is impossible for me to give any motivation for it, except that when I am gone, the words that I have written will be the only thing that survives.

Another article about Robert Shields is available here.

Related post:
Everyday stories hold great insight

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Communication lessons from the deaf

Is it possible that losing one sense can improve one's ability to communicate? Aerospace consultant Bruno Kahne asserts this in an amazing article in the magazine Strategy + Business ("Lessons of Silence").

Deaf people focus intensely on whom they're talking to face-to-face, they don't mince words, and don't interrupt. As a result, writes Kahne, they communicate must more efficiently than hearing people.

Here's one of a number of startling passages in a very short article:

Deaf people are direct. This is why people with hearing sometimes perceive sign language as blunt to the point of rudeness. It’s not. It’s just explicit. The deaf tend not to hide behind soft language, struggling to find the most diplomatic wording and hoping that the listener will be able to discern what they “really” mean.
I'll be reading this article again and again, and working to employ these techniques. Let me know if I'm communicating more clearly, won't you?

(Hat tip to Doc Searls for pointing this piece out.)


Friday, May 23, 2008

Leveraged buyouts in trouble and the fiduciary responsibility of CEOs

In light of the many private-equity-funded deals that are unraveling now, and the major impact on the stock prices of the targets, how should CEOs handle investors eager for a quick stock bump via an acquisition?

What I mean is: how do they price in the risk of a deal not happening when trying to weigh the pros and cons of such a buyout? The breakup fees (assuming they can even get them) don't come close to compensating for the stock price hit, never mind the months of distractions and competitive inroads yielded while the deal goes south.

Just wondering.

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From the Mistake Bank: Don't ever bring a harmonium to an acoustic radio gig

From The Mistake Bank.

This story is from Fran Ten, who is the bassist for West Indian Girl, an LA band with a very cool, neo-psychedelic sound. Fran runs the business operations for the band, and I interviewed him for a podcast. As is becoming a custom, I asked him for a mistake story. Completely off the cuff, he rattled off the story below, regarding discussions he and his bandmate, Rob James, had about a radio appearance. While he tells me that he has better mistakes than this, I thought it was an appropriate one to kick off a fun holiday weekend--plus it deals with a fear we all have--messing up in public. It made me smile, anyway.

There was one time, we had a radio gig, and Rob thought that someone should play a harmonium, you know, that Indian instrument? On his acoustic set. And it sounded like shit. Right? It sounded horrible.

I said, “You know, Rob, that was a mistake. We are never bringing a harmonium again to an acoustic radio show. You’re just going with your guitar, or this setup we know that works.”

But we tried it. At least we tried it. Business-wise, you have to keep making mistakes. Isn’t that how you grow?

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tony Ulwick's "customer job innovation map" in May Harvard Business Review

Recent Shop Talk Podcast guest Tony Ulwick, with Strategyn colleague Lance Bettencourt, has written an article in this month's Harvard Business Review ("The Customer-Centered Innovation Map").

The article elaborates on some of the topics we talked about in the podcast, and on Clayton Christensen's thinking that a product or service is focused on improving how someone completes a particular job (i.e., Levitt's 1/4" hole). To that end, Ulwick and Bettencourt propose a universal structure for decomposing a job into eight discrete steps, each of which is candidate for innovation.

The authors take the position that a job (what the customer is trying to accomplish) is distinct from a process (how the job is currently done). Focusing on processes leads to tunnelvision and poor innovation, while a job focus opens up a broad terrain for innovation.

Related Posts:
Shop Talk Podcast #4: Tony Ulwick on What Customers Want

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Senior Leadership Teams" is essential reading for executives

I recently related a story for the Mistake Bank about my experience as a senior leader with a medium-sized IT company. It involved a particularly difficult senior team meeting and my nasty reaction to a colleague's questioning a decision I'd made regarding a member of my team.

I recalled the story because I was reading "Senior Leadership Teams" by Ruth Wageman, Debra Nunes, James Burruss and Richard Hackman, which discusses that peculiar species--the team of leaders. One of the themes of the book is that senior leaders, left to their own devices, will prioritize their individual work and give little to the team. Another is that senior leaders rise to prominence based on their talents to achieve results with teams that work at their direction, meaning their teamwork skills are rusty at best. A third is that CEOs don't take many of the basic actions required to form a cohesive and productive team--things like explicitly choosing team members, setting explicit standards and norms for behavior, or providing adequate information for teams to act effectively.

My senior team experience bears this out. I focused on my team and my results, and preferred to leave my colleagues to clean up their own sandboxes. And when a colleague got too involved in "my" area, I didn't take kindly to it. I didn't know what the senior team was for, nor what was expected of me and how I should behave. In retrospect, I didn't behave well some of the time--even if I felt I was doing what was best for the company.

Perhaps you see why a book is needed to instruct people in this area. And, thankfully, "Senior Leadership Teams" is an excellent effort. The authors, affiliated with the Hay Group and with Harvard University, studied more than 100 senior teams and tried to understand why many performed poorly, while others--a smaller number--worked well. They found six conditions--three "essentials" and three "enablers"--that excellent teams had in common:

The essentials:

  1. A real team
  2. The right people
  3. A compelling direction
The enablers:
  1. A solid structure
  2. A supportive context
  3. Team coaching
The six conditions might sound simple, but the book is filled with insight as to why these simple things are hard to do, and what's necessary to make them real. As an example of the commonsense yet counterintuitive advice throughout "Senior Leadership Teams," read this section regarding selecting the right people to be on the team:

An executive suite is not a schoolyard. Just because someone wants to play on your team, has always been on the team, or was considered the heavy hitter of a past team does not mean that you are obligated to have him on your team. What's more, just because you have been chosen to lead an established team does not mean you must keep all the players when you take it over. (p.79)

There is wisdom like the above all over the book--on reward systems, team purpose & objectives, and prioritization. And interesting stories of real CEOs and how they made their teams effective.

One minor complaint--the book is addressed to a CEO, and as such gives lots of advice about selecting, coaching and enabling the team, and less advice about being an effective member of the team. Perhaps this is a topic the authors can explore in a future book.

But this is no reason to avoid "Senior Leadership Teams," no matter what your role. If you are an executive, or want to be an executive, read this book--before your next senior team meeting.

Related posts:
The Mistake Bank Manifesto
"Stay the f--- out of my department":

Find more videos like this on The Mistake Bank

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

US third broadband option an elusive goal

Earthlink's withdrawal from the municipal WiFi business, leaving the future of networks in Philadelphia and other cities uncertain at best, and similar news from MetroFi, has closed a chapter in the search for alternatives to the phone company and the cable company for a third broadband competitor.

Third-tier cities and rural areas are most affected. When the cables and telcos are offering higher-speed services (like Verizon's FiOS), they are doing so in the major metro areas. So it's not surprising that cities themselves are getting, perhaps reluctantly, into the broadband business. The efforts of Chattanooga, Tennessee, to build out a municipal fiber network, are profiled in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

While covering US broadband problems profiled before in this blog, like lower coverage, high prices and relatively low speeds compared to other countries, the WSJ article usefully shows the impact on customers, especially business customers, of poor broadband availability and performance:

In a converted saddle factory here, Jonathan Bragdon, 38 years old, runs a 40-person company that he says couldn't exist without a lot of affordable Internet bandwidth. Seven of his employees live and work in other cities, including New York and Leeds, England. His business, called Tricycle Inc., transmits high-resolution 3-D simulations of carpeting to interior designers.

More important than download speed for such work is upload speed. Yet, on most connections it often takes longer to upload files to the Internet than it does to download them from the Internet. With Comcast, Mr. Bragdon was getting a download speed of eight megabits a second, but an upload speed of only one megabit a second.

About two years ago, Tricycle switched to the EPB's fiber network. Mr. Bragdon says that lowered his costs several-fold and gave him the flexibility to upgrade to speeds as fast as 100 megabits a second. "With the rivers and the mountains, young people want to live here," says Mr. Bragdon. "But you need good bandwidth to work here."

Let's hope businesspeople like Mr. Bragdon can get the bandwidth they need, from whatever provider. And if the cables or the telcos won't provide it everywhere it's needed, perhaps the municipalities will have to.

Related Posts:
US broadband prices vs. the rest of the world: nothing has changed
US consumers need a third broadband option

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Confused by "open wireless"? Read this

When it comes to making sense of the fragmented, messy world that is the US wireless marketplace, Hamilton Sekino of Diamond Consulting (someone I've worked with for years) is as good as it gets.

He and co-author David Gates have just written a white paper entitled "Wireless Open Models" (link - free with registration) that helps sort out just what "open" means in all the different contexts of the wireless world (networks, services, platforms, devices) and how names like Verizon, Android, iPhone, Nokia, Kindle, and others are involved. Like all Hamilton's work, "Wireless Open Models" is rigorous, well-written, and comes with a strong viewpoint.

It's a useful resource to have handy the next time you read about "open wireless." Which could be as early as today.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Ultra-competitve mindset costs dealmakers

Deepak Malhotra (co-author of "Negotiation Genius," one of last year's top 5 books) and colleagues have once again dived into the psychology of negotiators and dealmakers in May's Harvard Business Review ("When Winning is Everything").

They find that certain factors present in many deals can drive irrational thinking and, ultimately, overpaying for acquisitions. The factors are:

  1. Rivalry - animosity toward a competitive rival for an acquisition, say, can create a "win at all costs" mentality.
  2. Time Pressure - racing to meet a stated or internal deadline can lead to accepting a poor deal
  3. The Spotlight - if people are watching--coworkers or the public--a dealmaker may act less rationally than if the spotlight were off.

Malhotra et al write: "Rivalry, time pressure and a bright spotlight can each fuel competitive arousal. Collectively, they can lead to decision disasters." They point to the Boston Scientific acquisition of Guidant and Viacom's purchase of Paramount as two costly examples of this type.

What to do? As in "Negotiation Genius," Malhotra urges dealmakers, first of all, to be aware that these factors exist. Mere awareness of a feeling of time pressure is a tool to prompt reflection: "Is there a reason this has to be done this week?" Almost always, the answer is no. The world won't end if the deal is delayed.

As for rivalry and the spotlight, companies can put approaches in place to manage them. Often, it means spreading the responsibility among teams of dealmakers rather than allowing individuals to shoulder the entire burden. [Microsoft might have managed the recent Yahoo engagement better if it had not allowed it to become Steve Ballmer's deal.]

Malhotra and his colleagues are probing into new and important territory in business research. By bringing behavioral economics and psychology into the forefront of dealmaking and negotiation, they are providing a valuable service to businesspeople everywhere.

Most refreshingly, their focus on the costs of dealmakers' irrationality and aggression is a welcome antidote to the lionizing of ultracompetitive CEOs and moguls elsewhere in the business press.

(Photo: a still from the infamous Steve Ballmer monkey dance)

Related posts:
"The Best Negotating Book I've Ever Read"

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Friday, May 16, 2008

The Mistake Bank manifesto

I've been reading the new book "Senior Leadership Teams: How to Make Them Great," by Ruth Wageman, Debra Nunes, James Burruss and Richard Hackman. Very close to the end of the book I found a passage that is a better explanation of what's behind the Mistake Bank than anything I could write myself. While it's focused on senior leaders, I think the ideas work for anyone who has a job or owns a business. [I'll do a full review of the book next week. Sneak preview: it's very good.]

To learn continuously... requires that senior leaders move beyond well-practiced leadership habits and well-learned personal models of what makes for a great leadership team. What's needed is active experimentation with new and unfamiliar leadership strategies, and whenever there is experimentation expect that there will also be failure.. More often than not, trying out a new grip or swing in golf or tennis results in worsened performance for a while. But these experiments also generate learnings that cannot be had otherwise. The same is true for experimentation with leadership strategies and skills.

In fact, error and failure always provide more opportunities for learning than do success and achievement, because failures generate data that you can mine for insight into how you might improve your assumptions or your mental model of team leadership. Indeed, the bigger the failure, the greater the learning opportunity. To learn from failure requires that you ask questions that arouse anxiety (for example, about the validity of your deeply-held assumptions or about personal flaws in your diagnosis or execution abilities). Learning from failure also requires that you gather data that can help answer those questions and then adapt your mental models and your behavior. These activities are not natural or comfortable acts, and they are especially unnatural for successful people who have limited experience in learning how to learn from error and failure. (p. 204)

Copyright 2008 Harvard Business Press

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The value of not caring in the workplace

I was with a company that went through lots of changes through its early history--many of them good changes. High growth, successful IPO, ultimately getting acquired for a huge sum. And of course some bad changes too--good people leaving, lots of interpersonal conflict. Early in 2000, when it looked like another tumultuous year upcoming, a senior manager that I respected a lot asked me my goals for the year. I thought for a while and then said "equanimity."

The shock and confusion registered on his face immediately. He expected me to say "sell lots of products" or "sign up lots of new partners" or whatever, but instead I said "equanimity." In that moment of thought I had decided I was not going to let changes and turmoil get to me, but that I would ride them out as unemotionally as I could.

And it worked. I had a really good year. Lots of changes happened, virtually all out of my control, and I dealt with them.

I was reminded of this story when viewing this video of Bob Sutton from the 50 Lessons people (I've been raiding their material for mistake stories recently). In the video, he talks about the genesis of "The No Asshole Rule," his acclaimed book, but also tosses in a provocative idea at the end. When discussing advice of how someone should deal with assholes, he said: "Very often in life, there's times when learning not to care, to be indifferent is incredibly important, and it's something we don't teach people enough.... If you're in a situation where there's nothing you can do about changing it, you might as well just ignore it and do what is best for you.... One of my goals as an adult is to get better and better at figuring out what doesn't matter to me, and ignoring it."

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

To progress in complex environments, experiment

I was talking to my wife tonight about a discovery I'll call the "Mistake Bank Manifesto" which I'll post about later. The upshot of what I was saying is that the folks who wrote the Mistake Bank Manifesto (I named it, others created it) asserted that learning from mistakes, while exceptionally useful to senior leadership teams, is often highly unnatural for very successful leaders.

I disagree, said my wife. Most of the successful people I know are very good students of failure.

So I faced a conundrum. The experts from Harvard and the Hay Group said one thing, my wife (the Vice President of Common Sense) said the opposite. So I thought on it a moment. Then: aha!

I said, successful entrepreneurs tend to be students of failure. But those who rise through a corporate hierarchy don't confront failures often (usually the results of corporate initiatives are ambiguous at best, and invariably termed successes of some sort), so for them learning from failure is unnatural. That's what the book was saying.

OK, I'll agree with that, said the VP of Common Sense.

This is an exceptionally long prelude to a post today from Dave Snowden at Cognitive Edge (Shawn Callahan at Anecdote has already posted a thoughtful reaction to this post) on "Coherence and Uncertainty" or, as I interpreted it, when the outcome is uncertain, try something to aim you toward your objective--in other words, experiment. (Dave calls these safe-fail probes.)

Experiments are probably worthwhile, according to Dave, when they are "coherent" (or consistent with what has happened or could happen), relatively cheap, and will provide useful learning even if they don't succeed.

Which brings me back to the entrepreneur/corporate question. Entrepreneurs tend to have an objective, may be willing to use many different ways to reach it--but in the service of some coherent vision. Experimentation is natural for them. They usually don't have much money. They are resilient. And they hunger to learn. Safe-fail for them is a way of life.

Corporate types? Well, no. The whole safe-fail approach is alien to the corporate environment. Heard the phrase "paralysis by analysis"? If you work in a large company you'll hear it weekly. Creating the environment for creative experimentation will require a cultural shift in how companies view their workers and vice versa.

Who's ready to get started?

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Champy's "Outsmart"--less than meets the eye

We talked some about business gurus last week, and while the name Jim Champy wasn't on the WSJ list, he would have been in the past. So when I was sent his new book, "Outsmart," I put down the other books I was reading to take this one up.

The good news was, at 165 pages with ample white space, it didn't take long to read. The bad news was that it fell far below my expectations. "Outsmart" is the business-literature equivalent of those new paper-like mint strips you lay on your tongue. The ideas dissolve in an instant.

Why? The book lacks the rigor of other recent books in the strategy literature, "The Opposable Mind" and "Big Think Strategy." It fails to paint the far-reaching vision of "The Future of Management." It is a collection of inspiring stories, and that has value. After reading it, however, I had difficulty taking away any lesson other than to be an extraordinary success, you had to be an extraordinary person with a strong vision and have excellent timing--not a very useful blueprint for most leaders.

At the end of each chapter is a summary of learnings. In "Compete By Doing Everything Yourself," Champy offers this lesson:

Control what matters. Doing everything yourself speaks to a very human impulse. When Cappello [the CEO of S.A. Robotics, the company that competed by doing everything itself] talked to me about his need to control his company's processes, I immediately understood that he was really talking about his distaste for losing control, especially for the kind of product he makes.

If you manufacture a complex, customized product, the need for control is clear. If you are providing a more commoditized product or service, however, outsourcing part of your work might be a legitimate option or, in some cases, a competitive necessity.

In other words, you can succeed by doing everything yourself, or by having others do work for you. It depends.

And in another chapter he writes, "I'm a strong believer that a company must be a low-cost producer to compete." Really? Is S.A. Robotics, which builds everything internally, a low-cost provider?

To me, these are indications of a book without a center. Compared to "The Opposable Mind" or "Big Think Strategy," "Outsmart" is lightweight. There's no science behind the theories other than a Darwinian metaphor in Chapter 1. The explanations are anecdotal (most times, a single anecdote). And no unifying theme.

"The Opposable Mind" described founders or CEOs who could reconcile contradictory ideas and thereby create new markets. Each example (and there were many) reinforced that idea. So did the cognitive research cited. "Big Think Strategy" supplemented its case studies with a strategic method.

By contrast, "Outsmart" is a brief, easy to read, set of success stories, that together don't add up to an important book, sad to say.

Related Posts:
"Big Think Strategy" is a fun, inspiring read
The first great business book of 2008 ("The Opposable Mind")
On Gary Hamel's "The Future of Management"

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Everyday stories hold great insight

If you've visited this space at all before, you'll know that I believe the stories we tell of our lives hold vast riches of information--and that information can be used to inform decisions on strategy, management & leadership, among other areas.

Today, the invaluable Harvard Business School Working Knowledge website features an article by Julia Hanna discussing creativity in the workplace and its place in innovation. The whole article is wonderful and worth reading in full. But I was fascinated by this passage regarding the research of Harvard professor Theresa Amabile:

As a way to delve deeper into the link between motivation and creativity, Amabile and her husband, psychologist Steven J. Kramer, conducted a three-year study of 238 professionals from seven companies in the high-tech, consumer products, and chemicals industries. Without revealing the focus of their study, they asked the subjects (all of whom were working on projects requiring creative effort) to fill out a daily electronic diary form that required numerical answers to questions about their work that day, as well as their emotions, motivation, and work environment. They were also asked to describe what they'd done that day and to include a brief description of one event at work that stood out in their minds [emphasis mine]. (Participants were asked to refrain from discussing the diary content with colleagues.) By the end of the study, Amabile and Kramer had collected nearly 12,000 entries, what she describes as a “wonderful treasure trove of data.”

"We have a window into how concrete events affected knowledge workers' thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and motivations," Amabile says. "We call this 'inner work life,' and we found that it directly influences creativity and other aspects of performance."

The mundane, quotidian stories (the events the subjects documented) were an integral part of the study data. By leveraging these, Amabile and Kramer were able to evaluate a trait--creativity--far more deeply than could have been done by numerical analysis alone. I'm convinced that capturing and sorting through stories can add incalculable wisdom to the business world. We've only begun to scratch the surface of the possibilities.

On a side note, I've been thinking about how Twitter and like tools will be involved in this arena. What are all those tweets telling us about ourselves?

But that's a topic for another post.

(Photo: "Old Diary" by Race_Eend via stock.xchng)

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A "new midlife crisis" story from the Williams-Sonoma Chairman

[This story is from Howard Lester, Chairman of Williams-Sonoma, the large home-goods retailer.]

...I realized that to that point in my working career, I had kind of done the things that were necessary. I was trying to make a living and just do the best I could and make money, but I was never really happy. I wasn't excited about getting out of bed in the morning and going to work, so I gave a lot of thought to what it was that I wanted to do, and I knew it was something different.

One of the main conclusions that I reached was that it was important for me at that point in my life--as I mentioned, I was in my early forties--to do something; you know, this is not a dress rehearsal. And I wanted to do things that I loved doing. Why go through life doing things that you don't love doing? And I felt that if I was doing something I loved, I'd have a better chance at being good at it than doing something I didn't love, because it wouldn't be work, it would be a joy.

So I went on a little journey of looking at a lot of businesses, some of them pretty weird. And one day I came across this little company called Williams-Sonoma, which was struggling. It was a little $4 million company with four stores and a small catalog, located in San Francisco. One thing led to another, and I was able to purchase the business in the summer of 1978.

We've been very fortunate. We've grown a business that we're quite proud of, and I can tell you that since acquiring Williams-Sonoma, I don't think there has been a day or a morning when I wasn't excited about getting up and going to work.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press. Excerpted from Lessons Learned: Straight Talk from the World’s Top Business Leaders--Starting a Business. Copyright (c) 2008 Fifty Lessons Limited; All Rights Reserved.

For more information about the "Lessons Learned" series, including a showcase of 50 Lessons video stories, please follow this link.

Related posts:
"The New Midlife Crisis: It's an existential necessity"
"Midlife Crisis--21st century style"

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Monday, May 12, 2008

A personal relationship makes all the difference

I am working on two consulting possibilities at the moment. #1 is right in my sweet spot, basically leveraging the work I've done the past fifteen years. #2 is more of a stretch, and would ask me to work in a few areas where I have peripheral knowledge or no experience at all.

I have a pretty good shot at one of these. The other I have no chance to land at all. Which is which?

If you guessed that I have no chance at opportunity #1, you're right. Why? The people associated with opportunity #1 don't know me at all. They found me (and other possibilities) at a recent trade show. When we talked on the phone, they wanted several references for identical projects. Given that I'm pretty new to the consulting game, the references were similar but not identical. Other folks can provide the precise references they want. Fifteen years in the business wasn't worth much.

The folks at opportunity #2 I've known for a few years. With my last company we competed for business with this group, and lost. But we built a good relationship, and have kept in touch since. Now they have a need, and want me to help them. They're confident I'll learn the things I haven't done before (and I am too, though I expect to make a few mistakes along the way). What's most important for them is the confidence they have in me (and vice versa) given our relationship.

This is instructive. Personal knowledge and confidence in your supplier's abilities are more important than individual CV line items. And if you don't know someone, risk aversion causes you (with good reason) to limit your search to suppliers that can prove they've done exactly what you need.

When I was younger I might have stewed over the injustice of this all. Today, I respect the folks in opportunity #1. I would do exactly what they are doing if I were in the same position. The lesson is to work hard at developing more relationships like #2. That's where the true opportunities are.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Shop Talk Podcast #8 - Two mistake stories from Ford Harding

Ford Harding, author of "Rain Making," who was interviewed in Shop Talk Podcast #7, was kind enough to share a mistake story for inclusion in The Mistake Bank.

Actually, he shared two. In the first, he relates a story that taught him there can be pitfalls in sharing the good side and bad side of things with a reporter (right-click to download).

And, in the second, he tells us of the profound teachings he received from a prospect who simply wouldn't call him back (right-click to download).

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Multiplayer games lessons #3 - tie rewards to individual contribution and deliver them timely

I worked at a medium-sized software/outsourcing company some years ago, as head of sales support. When I arrived, my group was a mess. One of my three employees transferred the first week I was there. The other two were buried in RFPs, trying to write proposals for clients from Brazil, France, Singapore and the US.

To try to get some order out of the chaos, I developed a simple spreadsheet that listed the prospect, opportunity, salesperson, next step, and a few other data items. I used the spreadsheet to allocate my staff to opportunities, and to discuss with the sales VP where we had resource issues--which was most places, since we had no accepted qualification process and chased everything out there. (That's a story for the Mistake Bank.)

The spreadsheet proved very useful to me. What was funny, though, is that a few years after I left the company, my wife (who still worked there) told me, "You know, they still use that spreadsheet you created years ago to manage the sales pipeline."

I recalled this story when reading the HBR article on leadership lessons from gaming ("Leadership's Online Labs"). Another of the very interesting observations from that article (besides those discussed here and here) was the idea that individual accomplishment in the games, even within a team concept, can be tracked and rewarded. Read this excerpt:

A point system..., used by leaders to motivate team members, is also part of a broader game economy. Players use synthetic currencies, such as virtual gold pieces, to buy and sell items of value to one another—everything from weapons to information to an agreement to collaborate on a particular task. (Players can also use real-world currency to purchase valuable items, such as skills or tools that others have earned in the game world, at numerous online auction sites. One of a leader’s tasks when putting together a team is to sniff out players who have tried to buy their way to a certain level of accomplishment.)

Incentive systems used by leaders affect motivation in several ways. Dividing up the winnings from a quest immediately after it’s completed—or, occasionally, awarding loot to someone even as the battle rages—creates a strong connection between effort and reward.... Even when it’s clear they’re unlikely to share in the spoils of a raid, players know that their participation will earn them points for future use. Finally, because individual compensation is based on objective performance data that can be automatically gathered and processed, and then publicly posted in real time, the reward system is generally viewed as fair.

The sorts of contributions people make to a corporate cross-functional team aren’t, of course, as easy to precisely quantify, track, and reward as are contributions that game players make to their guilds. Still, we believe that game-inspired incentives have the potential to dramatically improve leadership effectiveness in business organizations. Companies might devise ways to shorten the lag time between successful outcomes and the monetary compensation for those who contribute to them. For instance, instead of getting an end-of-year bonus, people in certain businesses could be rewarded for their contributions to a project as soon as it was completed—a prospect likely to galvanize their efforts. Also, before the launch of a group project such as a prolonged cross-functional sales effort, people might be given a breakdown of how rewards for a successful outcome will be divvied up.

It's notable that web2.0 technologies are extremely transparent and open with contributions. Blog posts carry the names of the authors (even when reprinted), commenters are noted. Wiki contributions are tagged with the owners' names. All in all, there's a complete accountability map behind any web2.0 project that could be used (were any of them to make any money!) to compensate each individual for his/her particular added value.

So, how much do you think I should get for that pipeline spreadsheet I created?

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Sign 'o' the times

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Multiplayer games lessons #2 - embrace of failure and iterative learning

I posted yesterday on the recent HBR article "Leadership's Online Labs," in which the authors discuss the results of a study of high-performing users of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), like World of Warcraft. In these games, participants worldwide take on roles and participate in quests and adventures--requiring the players to act in concert to achieve their objectives, planning together and using their varied capabilities to, for example, storm and take control of a castle against determined adversaries.

The article focuses on how the lessons learned by the MMORPG standouts could be applied to business. One passage in the article was very relevant to the Mistake Bank concept:

Trial and error play a big role in accomplishing game tasks. Failure, instead of being viewed as a career killer, is accepted as a frequent and necessary antecedent to success.

In one incident that we recorded from EverQuest, seven guild members prepared for a brand-new quest that required them to get their team across a large lake protected by a gruesome and hostile creature. Although they had formulated a strategy based on information gathered in advance, everyone seemed comfortable with the high likelihood of failure, at least initially. After a first attempt, in which the whole team nearly drowned and was forced to retreat, members quickly began plotting a new strategy in the spirit of a fundamental gamer maxim (one not heard very often in business): “Let’s try that again.”...

Frequent risk taking allows players to practice the art of weighing odds calmly in uncertain environments. Confronting risk routinely and with a level head will be an important leadership skill as the real-world business environment becomes more uncertain and as success comes to depend more on innovation than on execution. Organizations can help prepare leaders by fostering a culture in which failure is tolerated. They can expose leaders to risk by mimicking the structure of games, breaking down big challenges into small projects. Failure, after all, is clearly more palatable for the individual and more affordable for the organization when it happens at the project level rather than on a larger scale.

"Failure is a frequent and necessary antecedent to success." These few words illustrate one of the major systemic failings of companies today: instead of encouraging and learning from failures and mistakes at the project and small-group level, and adjusting course or changing behavior as necessary, they repress failure, refuse to acknowledge it, and don't learn. Resulting, of course, in a larger-scale catastrophic failure that everyone could see coming yet no one could acknowledge or do anything about.

Related Posts:
Choreographer Twyla Tharp on the usefulness of failure
Announcing The Mistake Bank
Mistake Bank #12 - Don't Forget About Support!
Great Innovation Requires...Acceptance of Mistakes
Learning From Mistakes, Part 72

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Multiplayer games demonstrate a new model for leadership

For many people engaged in knowledge work (a larger and larger percentage of the workforce), the biggest hassles are the noise and overhead of keeping track of their time, following procedures, reporting status, getting direction.

In other words, being "managed."

And managing is no fun either. Imagine days of back-to-back meetings, with little or no time to think, create or strategize. Imagine gathering your team's reports and consolidating them for the next link up the chain, then taking context-free task assignments from up the chain and distributing them to your team.

Ugh. I'm not missing that work at all.

I was thinking of this while reading the article, "Leadership's Online Labs," in the May Harvard Business Review. The authors--Byron Reeves, Thomas Malone and Tony O'Driscoll--examine successful and experienced players of massively multiplayer on-line computer games (like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, and the like) for lessons on how to lead groups and companies in the future.

There are lots of important observations in the article, including this one on leadership:

Perhaps the most striking aspect of leadership in online games is the way in which leaders naturally switch roles, directing others one minute and taking orders the next. Put another way, leadership in games is a task, not an identity—a state that a player enters and exits rather than a personal trait that emerges and thereafter defines the individual.

...[G]ames do not foster the expectation that leadership roles last forever. Someone leading a guild today may grow weary of the stress and hand over the reins after a month or two. The leader of a raid knows that someone else’s skills and experience may be better suited to commanding the next effort. Even during the frenzied activity of a raid, the leadership role can be transferred as conditions change or because the person in charge doesn’t happen to be around when the need for a decision arises. Notably, choices about who will lead and who will follow are often made organically by the group—frequently because someone volunteers to take over—not by some higher authority....

The idea of temporary leadership is alien to most business organizations. Companies usually identify people as leaders early in their careers. The selected few carry that designation with them through different jobs, each typically lasting several years, as they move up the corporate hierarchy. That model may not work well in the future. The growing complexity of the business environment means that no single leader will be an expert in every area. Beyond the obvious benefit of matching an individual’s expertise to a challenge, treating leadership as a temporary state can empower employees to volunteer to lead and, thereby, can unearth previously overlooked talent among the ranks.

In the above paragraphs is a challenge to the heart of the business status quo. Business schools churn out thousands of graduates aspiring to management roles. Is it possible that companies will increasingly not need managers but instead flexible contributors who can adopt and shed "leader" and "follower" roles as needed?

This sounds more like the way things work at Google and W.L. Gore, as profiled in Hamel's "The Future of Management." If it is to happen, it will require wholesale reinvention of compensation, incentive systems, personnel development and recruiting. In brief, a tall order.

One thing is for certain, though. The companies who pioneer and master this new model will not be the behemoths of today. Twisting some recent words of Doc Searls, it "will come from the edge. It’ll happen under the feet of clashing giants."

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Monday, May 05, 2008

No female business gurus? Try this list

There was a fun article today in the Wall Street Journal that ranked the top business gurus by citation, Google hits and media mentions. Familiar names, like Gary Hamel, Malcolm Gladwell and Thomas Friedman are in the top 5.

This paragraph, though, struck me:

One notable absence from the top 20: women. The 2003 list included one woman, Harvard's Rosabeth Moss Kanter, among its top 20, but she fell in the new ranking. "I would love to hear more female speakers," says Kristi Wetherington, CEO of Capital Institutional Services Inc., a Dallas independent institutional brokerage firm.

So who would be on my list of top female gurus? How about these:

1. Herminia Ibarra, INSEAD. Powerful thinking on career management and networking.

2. Deborah Ancona, MIT. Authority on teamwork (her book "X-Teams" was one of my favorite books of 2007).

3. Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School. Organizational behavior, including the value of candor and dissent in the workplace.

4. Rita Gunther McGrath, Columbia University. Practical yet profound ideas on leadership and innovation.

5. Traci Fenton, WorldBlu. A tireless advocate and thinker on workplace democracy.

And of course Ms. Kanter.

Related posts:

"Personal Networks: useful anywhere" (Ibarra)

"Blame it on the I-Team" (Ancona)

"Great innovation requires great teams..." (Edmondson)

"A more realistic way to profit from innovation" (McGrath)

"WorldBlu 2008 List of Democratic Workplaces released" (Fenton)

Kanter's Innovation Pyramid"

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Friday random observation: it's scary to get real emails from people with spam email names

For example, I got an email this week from "Thiago DaSilva" and he wasn't selling cheap Tag Heuer watches or Viagra. After nearly trashing it, I realized it was actually in response to a request I had made.

It's a bit creepy when spam begins to resemble real emails and, worse, real emails begin to resemble spam.

PS, I have business email through Yahoo, and it lets every bit of spam through--probably 80% of my emails are spam, and I have to delete them. Anyone know of a way I could take my Yahoo-provided domain name to another provider who deals with this problem more effectively?