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Friday, April 27, 2012

If You Are Always Right, You Are Doing Something Wrong!

There's a wealth of stories about what individuals learned from making mistakes, or how they recover from failures. Anyone who does not make mistakes (or admit them), will not be exposed to this expanded dimension of experience.

I once had a boss who would ignore an idea at a meeting this week, but would raise it at the next meeting as his idea – if it worked, he took credit, if not the original thinker would get the blame. Can't be wrong under this system.

Similar results happen when the goal is too easy or is not specific – when the bar is this low there's a danger of tripping over it – hard to make a mistake if the measure is simply coming to work.

In an early iteration of networks and the internet, my organization had an eclectic collection of PCs of various brands and capabilities, software which spanned the DOS and Windows worlds – we had 6 different versions of word processing software – a rag-tag collection at best. The equipment failed frequently and our techs could spend up to 30 minutes just figuring out the combination of hardware and software BEFORE they could work to fix the problem.

We were planning a patchwork solution for replacing network equipment and software within available budget - about to place the order - when a doer from production suggested leasing all new equipment.

With this new perspective, we worked the numbers and found we could accomplish a complete replacement of the network over 90-days by leasing everything. The monthly cost of the lease fell within our budget constraints and the savings from fewer and shorter service calls offset most of the greater overall cost of leasing.

We would not have made this decision, or moved the network forward had we not avoided the mistake of repeating what we've done before without investigating other alternatives. The outcome was better by avoiding the 'safe' do it because we've done it before approach.

Recovery is a powerful teacher – it only takes on time as a child touching the stove to develop great respect for the appliance – and we learn a great deal more if something does not come out as we had expected (or hoped). The critical element is how we use this knowledge – and, as leaders, that we permit error with recovery as a natural event of professional growth.
If you are always right, you are doing something wrong! What have you learned by mistake?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Question About Questions

When you ask a question, are you trying to change your understanding...or theirs?

Teaching by asking questions can cause learning breakthroughs. Too often I see people trying to manipulate others, which can backfire spectacularly.

I ask a lot of questions because I genuinely want a better understanding, not for the other person, for me.

Recently I was with a person who was waiting to be manipulated. That got to be Monty Python funny.

Sometimes a question is just a question. 

Questions? *grin*

Monday, April 23, 2012

Capitalizing On Free

Free is a strong resource in this emerging economy. Since we have access to all the buyers, free is a good way to get more of them to focus on our offer. How do we then create value from free?

I’m an old time Rock ’n Roller, and I’m giddy with my ability set up set lists of the bands I listened to and even played with on Spotify. Thanks guys! I ‘m joining friends I haven’t heard since 8 track.

Best thing I learned about my bands from 30 years distance? We just weren’t that good...and it shows. Couldn’t hear that at the time.

Last week I was talking with a veteran pre-sales software engineer in New York. His work is over, from a different business paradigm, but he now has a steady stream of cloud startups asking him to demonstrate and sell their new stuff. Since their offer is for free, he should work for free. He didn’t see how any of them had the sense to make a business. What was his better strategy?

I had a similar experience in February 2010. A dozen entrepreneurs had approached me separately over the month with their solutions looking for problems. After exhaustive research, they had determined I could create a business plan that would make their fortune. If I would do that first, I was welcome to sell their product on a commission basis, details to be defined later.

After 12 in a row, I was seriously wondering what I was doing wrong. Turns out it was a temporary aberration of the law of large numbers, and I needed more prospects. I worked past the situation, but hadn’t figured out any lesson.

Back to my New York friend, we talked a bit, and finally I said, why not take the most promising solutions, and build a demonstration that he could host on his Plus page? Whether he eventually sold anything or not, he could show some tasteful work that would be valuable both for him and the startups.

He wanted to know if he could do that with more than one company?

I answered from my extensive understanding of Soviet Economics, “Hey, they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.”

That structure came in handy for another friend in the financial product sales just the next week. We may be on to something.

What are your strategies for dealing with free?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Advice – The Give and Take

Do people ever offer you advice?

How valuable is it when you request it? When unsolicited?

Earlier this week I heard from an entrepreneur – he had an idea, started a company, and successfully sold it in four years. He would make a change if he did another start-up: during the planning for the start-up, he would plan the exit strategy as well. In addition to avoiding problems with exiting the business, his experience was the entry and exit planning together would have helped him better focus on how to delivery the services more effectively.

For me, this was a useful data point in business planning. My experience in planning the start-up has been total absorption in the up and running phase. Later changes were needed to complete the spin up and provide efficient delivery of services. Some in & out planning could have avoided later modifications.

Why was this advice credible and of value?

It was grounded in experience and offered as 'I would' not as a 'you should'.

Is ego the reason for resisting 'you should' advice? No – in the above story, the individual knows what his situation was and offered that he would do things differently for another start-up. How can a casual observer offer specific advice ('you should') without knowing the details of my problem?

My acceptance would be different had the individual offered his interpretation of principles or approaches done by others, suggesting that next time he would do things according to this 'new' approach. It is a data point without verification – his theory but not his experience. Is it lessons from the past – no longer applicable in the New Normal - can't tell from a theory.

Unsolicited advice often comes with a preface of 'you should'. This causes me to wonder about the underlying purpose for offering the advice, in addition to its applicability to my situation – if there is an actionable situation. There is usually an abundance of unsolicited advice offered about how to improve your golf game or to change political, corporate, or government operations – valuable?

Hearing how others have faced similar situations adds to our knowledge, but does not substitute for personal experience.

We learn by doing. We learn a great deal by avoiding or recovering from mistakes.

This is experience.

Advice: What's your experience?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Jay Deragon has written a post, Social Shifts In Thinking, about how the American economy has fundamentally changed, and not for the first time! It’s a short post, well worth a read. His last sentence is You can’t see the solutions unless you change how to think about solutions.

The same day I was treated to Michael SacasasTechnology in America, where he explains why Americans choose Technology over Science and always have.

Their posts made me decide to write my post about work - What it is and how it should be done.

I see a lot of people faking their work. Jack lent me his book, DisneyWar, As I was pounding down the home stretch, I was asking myself how much more “notwork” could I bear to read? Posturing, wounding, accusing, guessing, and riotously screwing up. Sound familiar? DisneyWar isn’t a unique story.

Looking at all these new jobs, what is work? Especially if you believe, as Jay and I do, that we are in a different world, there is a lot of strange out there. I need the familiar to navigate the strange.

I’ve been a carpenter, plumber, welder, writer, photographer, programmer, foreman, contractor, musician, equipment operator, and project manager, and there are some common practices that simplify all kinds of work while magnifying value.

The List – whether it’s a set list, a project plan, a daily 3x5 card, or a pilot’s takeoff preparation, effective workers keep The List. I’ve see that new workers who don’t start with a daily list usually run out of tasks around 10:30 in the morning. Very few do any work after that.

One other use of The List is to keep track of daily progress to estimate future jobs. I was told, “Don’t take out your mistakes when you do the next job. You’ll make new ones.”

There’s Work and there’s Talking About Work. A certain amount of palaver can be useful to make sure we know what we are doing, but the talking is usually not the doing.

There is some new thinking that doers need blocks of time to get into a zone of accomplishment, and breaking them out for one hour meetings with watchers is strictly for the convenience of the watchers. In 1983, Blue Thunder introduced the concept of JAFO.

Layout—First we’re gonna do this and then we’re gonna do that. A key skill of a lead on any project is to have the right order of production. Either you do or you don’t. No amount of threat and spin makes up for bad layout. If someone gets blamed, the layout was bad.

Best Practices – The best line I ever heard about best practices was, “Either a best practice is blatantly obvious or it’s not a best practice.” Unfortunately the guy that said it doesn’t want his boss to know he said it. Once you find the best way to do something, publicize it so everyone does it the best way until you can discover something better. Replacing a best practice is a cause for celebration.

Mechanic is a fairly common term for someone who knows their work. Mechanic was first defined to me for plumbers, and at various times I’ve earned the right to be told what makes a truck driver, a carpenter, a welder, an estimator, a programmer and a proposal writer a mechanic. It is an honor to be inducted into the mysteries, and they all used the word mechanic.
As the work we do and the way we think about what we do changes, how the best do the work may continue to be the same. That’s what to look for to determine the competent.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Pivot Point Is About Transition

A Pivot Point is a 'game-changing' life event that you remember vividly forever, and it changes you.

Last Friday, Myron Radio facilitated a marvelous program at the Leadership Breakfast of Maryland; the core concept was the effect of pivot points on individual and organizational success.

Two stories which illuminate the transition effect of a pivot point:

As an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland studying business and economics, I experienced an ah-ha when a labor law professor opened my eyes to the difference between being a student and being a learner. My focus shifted from trying to discern what would be on the test to actually internalizing the material – linking it prior learning and experience. If it didn't fit I would find other viewpoints to better understand how it related to what I already knew. Suddenly I was using knowledge, instead of just storing it – and have continued to be a learner ever since.

In my professional career I was point-guy for my organization in a merger. The president of the acquiring firm open a discussion about my role in the combined organization – a lateral shift to VP of recruiting. To me recruiting is a functional role, not an executive one, and I shared my thoughts with him, indicating I would not be accepting his offer. With a clear mind, I went on to become a President and CEO.

Many of us realize while pivot points are the major shifts, often we suddenly see how a puzzle piece fits for the issue currently in our minds. For example, when reading the book Makers by Cory Doctorow, it became clear to me how the traditional business structure was evolving – a fictional work NOT about business yielded an explanation of the radical shift currently under way.

Being aware of these shifts, great and small, empowers the leader to transform an organization by creating an environment encouraging applied learning and innovation.

The key to future challenges are in the lessons learned during the journey from the present to the future.

Add to the discussion – share your experience with a Pivot Point.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What Happens When Leaders Ask 'Why Do We Do This?'

Young children are legendary for asking Why? Why? Why? when seeking to learn. Adults, however, tend to simply do what's been done before without asking – why do we do this?

An experience to consider. When appointed as head of operations years ago, I suspended a dozen reports compiled by the accounting department without announcing the change. Out of 200+ employees, one person called about not receiving a report. We continued that report and canceled the other eleven (which freed up ½ FTE in accounting as a result).

This brought into sharp focus the effect of doing something because: we've been doing it; it's a tradition; it's SOP.

A leader will not only question why but will also encourage the doers to ask 'why do we do this?'

Base evaluating why on:
  • Does it directly create sales?
  • Does it directly serve the customers' needs?
  • Does it directly support operations and production?
  • Does it directly advance the mission, vision, or progress to the goal?
  • Does it exist in a different form – e.g., stored data – can it be accessible as needed instead of compiling a report?

A significant factor in the current turmoil in the labor market is the obvious becoming clear – the computer is now doing tasks and processes, and fewer people are needed. For example - when you check in at the kiosk in the airport, you get your boarding pass, the passenger list is updated, your seat is confirmed, your connecting flight is notified you are coming, food provisioning is updated, and the pilot and cabin crew are informed you are boarding.

Visualize the effect of multiple individual processing that was eliminated by sharing the check-in information – resulting in less airline employee gate agents and less passenger lines. Computer vs. people is occurring in all sectors – corporate, non-profit, government, and small business, with similar results.

Process automation frees up individuals to do something else; however, currently there is a limited amount 'something else' available.

To re-frame the picture of jobs and roles, a leader can ask - What would directly improve key areas in the organization. Focus on sales, results, customers, and effective production – bundle tasks and processes together to define new jobs and roles, then train people on the technology – not the equipment, but how to produce results.

Have a story about 'do it because we do it' work or innovative job creating? Please join the discussion.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Choke That Temptation

I was presiding over a science fair last week, when suddenly, a new class came in and no judges were noticing! I hurried to notify the judges, but was stopped by the press of happy students, happy judges, real learning just busting out all over.

Then I thought to myself, these judges are Ph. Ds, who have been working science fairs as long as I have, and they could all see the same situation I could. They knew the drill.

I subsided before I did something stupid.

The judges flowed over to the new projects, on their own, without a hitch. Just a low key action keeping the focus totally on the student-stars of our show.

Have you ever seen a manager who thinks he was appointed sheriff, and can’t stand to sit and watch?

I’m starting to think there is a lot to be learned from rolling a bowling ball. All the work is done before you let go and before you have any idea how it is going. Any improvement after you let go is just supplying comedic value.

Comments are always nice...