On Being Acquired – Lessons Learned

Once upon a time, I was one of the three full-time employees at Colusa Software, which Microsoft acquired in 1996.  We all came to Microsoft as part of the buyout, and went on to learn some interesting lessons about having your very small company acquired by a very large one.

Who We Were

Colusa was building some nifty virtual machine technology – you could target it from any conventional language, could run in a protected sandbox, and could get close to natively compiled performance on a variety of hardware platforms.   Our dream was that we would contribute towards a VM for Windows that would ultimately run much of the software in the world.  Other companies wanted to acquire us, but we came to Microsoft because we thought it offered the best chance for our technology to be ubiquitous – we said to each other that it would be a place to build software that “my mom will use.”  That was a very powerful motivation.

What Happened

After we were acquired, we ended up in the Visual Studio organization.  It seemed to make sense because we needed to work closely with the compiler team to target the VM, but actually it was a mistake.  All of the major decisions about runtimes were being made elsewhere, and we had limited contact with the key people.  Many of them were already committed to other solutions.

The result was that we kept getting redirected from afar.  “Your VM would be perfect if the wire size was smaller than Java.”  Ok, we went and built a cool compression strategy that yielded extremely compact code.  “Your VM is out of the question because it isn’t compatible with Java bytecodes.”  Oh.  “Your VM is Microsoft’s future.”  Great!  “Your VM would be cool, but isn’t practical without a substantial modification to Windows that would require too many resources.”  But …  And so on.

Amidst these conflicting messages, we tried to soldier ahead.  We rebuilt our original system to work with Windows, and demonstrated that it worked  by recompiling Microsoft Word and running it on the VM with performance indistinguishable from natively compiled code.  Eventually the team helped design the bytecode strategy of one of the VMs in the operating system.  Although it wasn’t what we had originally hoped to accomplish, the ideas did influence the design of a part of Windows.

So, what did I learn from all this?

Lesson #1: Have a champion

By far the most important lesson is that you desperately want to have a senior person who is the champion for your group.  We didn’t have one, and we suffered badly for it.  The need is particularly acute if you walk into a politically charged area.  There were deep divisions in the company that we didn’t understand – it was confusing for long-time employees and utterly baffling to us.  We thought we had something that the company would eagerly seize upon.  Over the course of six months, we were told that we had one of the most important projects in the company, that our technology would be scrapped, and that we should redesign it in ways that we felt would be a disaster.  Not fun.

I don’t think anyone could have prevented the situation from being difficult and confusing, because the company was facing very tough and important decisions.  But at least we would have felt that somebody was in the key meetings advocating for us and then telling us what was happening.  I think the team was hurt, for example, by a feeling among some key partner teams that we were overselling.  We thought we had carefully explained that, for a commercially viable solution, we would have to rely on other parts of the company to deliver key missing pieces.  But that message didn’t get through.  This kind of disconnect happens all the time and is natural; people who hear about a technology without the details make assumptions about what it does and doesn’t deliver.  Teams have to actively (and continually) educate their partners.  We just weren’t talking to them.  In fact, we didn’t even know their names.

To a company being acquired, I can’t stress enough that you want a politically savvy champion who has the ear of the key architects, people in management, etc. and will go to bat for you when it is appropriate.  You want that person to be identified with the acquisition and their credibility on the line as to whether it succeeds or fails.  They should drive you hard and want to exploit your ideas for the maximum benefit of the company – after all, that’s what you want, too!

Lesson #2: End up in the right part of the organization

Many large organizations have teams that are quite autonomous from each other.  If you land in the right place, which we didn’t, the people around you will understand how to integrate your technology into the product portfolio of the company and be in a position to make that happen.  The key thing, though, is that your hosting organization is the one that drives the decisions that most directly affect you.

Lesson #3: Nobody trusts you

Getting acquired feels like a seal of approval.  It says that you were doing something cool enough that the big company felt it was better to buy it than to build it themselves.  That doesn’t prepare you for the likelihood that nobody in your new company will trust you at all.  They won’t believe that your code is any good or that your team is up to the standards of the rest of the organization.

As far as I’ve seen, there are only two solutions:

  • Seed your team with some experienced and trusted employees from the big company.  This is a great idea anyway, because in addition to providing credibility, they can also be enormously helpful in getting things done in your new environment.
  • Ship and win in the marketplace.  That’s the ultimate coin of the realm in any software company.

Final Thoughts

There were ups and downs throughout the experience, but I learned an enormous amount from being acquired by and working within a large company.  I’m doing my third startup now, and hopefully applying lessons learned from all the experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have along the way.

Use the “Pet Rock Principle” for your next project review

Ah, the project review.  Like death and taxes, if you work in a larger company, these are probably an inevitable fact of life – at some point, and maybe quite frequently, you have to get in front of somebody senior and give a review of the state of your project.  At Microsoft, the ritual of the “BillG Review” was woven into the culture when Bill ran the company.  Your review might be anything from a routine monthly status update to a high stakes undertaking with people who have the ability to cancel the project (and/or fire you).

Designing a great review is complex and involved; you want to tell a compelling story that resonates with your audience, to distill the work into its essence, and to convince that the team is executing well and should continue to get support.  These reviews can take on a life of their own and soak up tremendous amounts of time that could be (much) better employed in getting the darn work done, rather than talking about it.  This is one of the reasons that small organizations can be more efficient – they don’t need to prepare reviews of the work they are doing, because everyone is too busy getting it done.

Enter the Pet Rock

To avoid getting bogged down in an expensive manage-up exercise, when I’m preparing for a review I try to stay focused on what I call the “pet rock” principle.  If you didn’t grow up in America in the 1970’s, you might not have heard about the pet rock – it was a hilarious (and self-mocking) fad where people bought a rock, instead of a real pet, because they are much less trouble to take care of.  Pet rocks were very good at some tricks – as the instruction manual explained, they excel at “sit” and “stay”, but struggle with “shake hands”.  Since the pet rock is an iconically useless object, it seems like the perfect stand-in for some members of senior management, as seen from the trenches.

The principle that’s guided me through many reviews (on both sides of the table) is that most of the value from a really good review would be achieved if you replaced the audience with a pet rock.  In other words, the review should be mostly designed to benefit the team, not the reviewers.

As easy as it is to get cynical about reviews, they can be a valuable exercise.  They force you to:

  • Articulate the goals, strategy, and execution plan for the project.  As I have repeatedly advocated throughout this blog, there is magic to writing things down.  It forces you to think much more carefully and systematically than you usually do.  A review is a great opportunity to tell your story to your own team.  Usually the leaders of a team assume that everybody “gets it” .. and often that isn’t true.  It’s incredibly valuable for the team to walk through the vision, the strategy, and the plan.  From research in advertising, we know that people do not absorb a message until the third exposure (and some studies have yielded much larger numbers).
  • Distill the essence of the work.  Senior people generally get bored easily, so they won’t let you maunder on at endless length about what you are doing.  They want it summarized into a succinct and effective form.  Figuring out how to capture the work you are doing in a tight and lean format is a powerful exercise.  And it’s hard.  Often you won’t bother to do that work until you have a forcing function, and the review can be that forcing function.
  • Enumerate top issues/risks and what is being done about them. It’s easy for teams to get desensitized to their biggest problems.  “Well, yes, there is a blazing fire over there that threatens our success, but it’s been on fire for a while and we just don’t have time right now to worry about it.”  Reviews can force you to think those problems through and make sure you have a plan to resolve or mitigate them.

An excellent review can be a morale booster that reminds everyone of the exciting mission that they are on.  It can identify issues that are falling through the cracks, and can help you to hone your execution.  Mostly, that isn’t how it works, though – they provide modest benefits (at best) for the team, and they represent a bunch of overhead that saps precious reserves of energy and enthusiasm.

So if you are pulling a review together, see if this principle helps you stay focused.  Constantly ask yourself whether you are working on something you would truly continue to do if there were a pet rock presiding over the review.  When the answer is no, you are just managing up.  You may have to do some of that, but the more you do, the less you are advancing the organization’s true interests, and the more you are creating the overhead that everyone complains about.

Omit needless work .. and remember the rock!

Five Favorite Books .. Capturing the Passion of Creation and Discovery

One of the most common and effective of the “classic plots” for a novel is the quest.  Many epic tales are based on it – Frodo and the Ring, Indiana Jones and the Ark, Odysseus and his attempt to get home.  But the passion to create and to discover in the real world can be just as compelling, if they are captured well.  I’m always looking for books that pull it off, and here are five that I particularly enjoyed.

Ship of Gold – in 1857, the SS Central America was wrecked off the Carolina shore on its way back from the California gold fields, with hundreds of people and tons of gold aboard.  The exact location of the wreck was a mystery – a puzzle that Tommy Thompson was determined to solve.  He is an entrepreneur and explorer and inventor who spent 10 years searching for the wreck and preparing for the salvaging operation.  Along the way, he invented a whole range of new equipment and techniques for doing deep-water recovery – the ship was 8000 feet below the surface, distantly out of the reach of traditional salvaging methods.

Thompson throws himself into the project, leading a team of oddball characters and managing investors and lawyers .. while fending off competitors who are watching his every move.  He built a six ton remote controlled underwater vehicle called Nemo, with video cameras and robotic arms.  How he ultimately succeeded in recovering a few hundred million dollars worth of gold from the wreck is a triumphant story of achieving an extraordinarily difficult mission against all odds.

A Place of My Own: The Architecture of DaydreamsMichael Pollan is probably best known for his book “Omnivore’s Dilemma” (which is very good!).  But I am a fan of his less celebrated (and quirky) book describing in immense detail how he came to build a writer’s cabin on his property.  You may have been involved in a construction project of your own at some point, but I’m going to guess that you didn’t approach it in quite the way that Pollan did.  He’s .. well, he’s an obsessive sort of person, and fiercely bookish.  And yet he decided that he would build this house himself, starting from absolutely zero knowledge of architecture or construction.

Work is how we situate ourselves in the world, and like the work of many people nowadays, mine put me in a relationship to the world that often seemed abstract, glancing, secondhand. . . . Nor did what I do seem to add much, if anything, to the stock of reality, and though this might be a dated or romantic notion in an age of information, it seemed to me this was something real work should do.

The two and a half year saga of Pollan and a curmudgeonly builder putting together what is essentially an oversized garden shed is a glorious and beautifully written ode to manual labor mixed with over-thinking everything.  To get things rolling, he turns to the writings of … Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman architect from the first century BC.  And to Chinese writings about the principles of feng shui (he tries running downhill to feel the flow of the land and identify a good site for the building).  And to poets, architects, philosophers .. the list goes on and on.  You get the pleasure of joining Pollan on an absurdly wide ranging set of digressions on the history of architecture, how to design a truss, and the often uneasy relationship between architects and builders.  And at the end, you feel like you have traveled with him on a zealot’s quest to create a perfect organic writing space.

The Soul of the New Machine – as an engineer, I love the way that Tracy Kidder captured the excitement and the exhaustion of creating a new piece of complex technology.  He vividly conveys the marathon sessions of caffeine-fueled intensity, the team driving itself to the edge as it creates and refines a tremendously complex design.  It is one of the truest portrayals I’ve read of what it is like to be swept up in that kind of experience.  And it’s particularly noteworthy because Kidder is not technical at all – he has no real understanding of the work that the team was doing, yet managed to capture the spirit of it very accurately.

This particular machine was built by Data General, in 1981, at the dawning of the age of the mini-computer.  It ended up having little impact on the evolution of computer technology, because DEC’s VAX was and remained dominant.  But that makes the story even more authentic to me, in some ways – you have to believe that what you are doing is incredibly exciting and important.  It’s magical to be swept up in that collective creative act, regardless of the verdict that history ultimately renders on the outcome.

How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming – those of us in my generation grew up in a nine planet solar system, with lonely Pluto orbiting way out in the frigid fringes of the solar system, looping in its eccentric orbit off kilter from everyone else.  It was jarring to hear that the astronomers downgraded the poor little wanderer to being a mere “planetoid” – My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas lost its punch line (maybe now she is serving us Naan, to reflect our globally connected community …).  What happened?

This book answers that question, and it also lets you join Mike Brown, a passionate explorer of the cosmos.  He introduces us to his life as an astronomer and his painstaking exploration of the pocket of space around the sun that we call our solar system.  You will learn about the Kuiper Belt and its littering of frozen asteroids, you’ll watch astronomers move from massive cameras exposing film all through the night to computers that can capture images hundreds of times more quickly and search for cosmic wanderers algorithmically.  It’s a great ride.

Double Helix – I almost didn’t include this book because it is so well known, but it’s such an exciting read, and represented such a transformation in our understanding of genetics, that I couldn’t leave it out.  If you haven’t read it yet, it tells the story of how James Watson and Francis Crick figured out the structure of DNA, the genetic blueprint for human beings (and every other organism on earth, aside from some viruses).  It’s literally the magic key to life on Earth.

The book shows the human drama of discovery, complete with a race to figure out the answer before other teams could “crack the code” first.  And the result is such a beautiful answer – the double helix structure is elegant and resilient.

This is what drew me to science and research as a child – banging your head against hard problems that matter, suddenly having the insight, and then being able to understand how the world works and came to be in a new and exciting way.  It’s what science ought to feel like!

Ready to Ace Your Exit Interview?

When I’m having a management or a mentoring conversation, I like to pose the following challenge: “You just got offered an amazing new job .. it’s one you’ve always dreamed of.  But before you leave, you have an exit interview with your manager and your successor.  What do you want to tell them about your tenure, your team, and your projects?  What burning issues will your successor inherit and are they on track to being resolved?”

The answers depend, of course, on the nature of your current role.

  • If you are a manager, you probably want to talk about what a great, high morale team you have.  How the people are on a good trajectory, or how you are working with the ones who aren’t to get on a clear path for addressing the problems.  How you have a strong bench of future leaders you’ve been developing (hopefully your successor is one of them).  The mission is inspiring, the goals are clear and reflect the biggest opportunities available, the strategy is compelling, and the execution is effective.
  • The projects that you are responsible for are on a great path to success.  As you leave, things will continue seamlessly forward because the work is well organized and you have made sure that it an be passed over cleanly to somebody else.  No commitments will be missed, no balls dropped.
  • The issues that potentially block success have been analyzed and are being addressed and/or mitigated.

If you can say all that, congratulations on having aced your exit interview!  The person who is taking over for you is truly set up for success, but they have some big shoes to fill.


Is that how it’s going to go?  If not (and I have yet to meet anyone who says it will!), what are the biggest reasons you won’t be taking a victory lap at your exit interview?

Usually, I find that there are a handful of big issues that people are worried about and that aren’t on a good track to resolution.  They might be:

Unpleasant.  People problems often fall into this bucket.  Sure, things aren’t great, and yes, something really ought to be done about it, but dealing with it is going to suck.  It’s often doubtful whether there will be a clear resolution at the end, especially if the other person doesn’t work for you and hence you have limited options for adjusting the situation.   So, it’s easier to just avoid the whole thing and keep bumbling along.

Important but not urgent.  Creating that new market would be an amazing win for the company.  Hiring a senior architect could transform the ability of the team to build great software.  But there is no particular urgency – no deadline will be missed, there is no forcing function.  And there are a hundred emails to answer, and that milestone is coming up, and my schedule is packed, and …

Hard.  I know that I should really be working on this big issue or opportunity, but I don’t exactly know how to do it.  I have to go get educated in some new area, or break through a tough analysis, or learn a new skill that I secretly fear I’ll be lousy at.  One way or another, it’s going to be a ton of work, and I’m not sure that I’ll really get anywhere, and my plate is full of things I do know how to do.

I’ve found that these big issues that people feel bad about are often the most important things they should be focused on.  So, I get them to write down the list of those issues, and then I ask the key next question: what specific actions are you going to take about each one, and when?  Because feeling bad doesn’t accomplish anything .. you need to take action.  I keep track, too, and the next time we talk, I bring it up again to see whether there has been progress.

Are you ready to ace your exit interview?  Why not?  What are you going to do about it?

Do You Want To Work For You?

So here’s your challenge: you just got a new manager and it is … yourself.  How do you feel about that?  I think it’s a good test to figure out what managers are for, and how to be a better one.

Say you are Worker Bee, pounding away on a daunting array of projects.  And your new manager is Fearless Leader, who happens to be your exact clone.

Are You Happy?

If you aren’t happy and excited about having yourself as your new manager, you should think really hard about why not.  Mostly, those reasons are things you need to fix, because they will bug other people who might work for you, too.  And no, you aren’t so fabulously special that you need a different kind of manager than all those “normal” people.

A reasonable sounding answer (that I think is bogus) is that you want a manager who is much more experienced and senior than you are, so you can learn from them.  Sure, maybe, but there is a good chance in life that you will be managing people who are just as experienced as you are, or more.  So you’d better find ways for managers to add value, even when you aren’t wiser and more expert than the team, or there are going to be a very limited number of management roles you are going to be good at.

You Won’t Be Clones For Long

One of the interesting side effects of a new role is that it inevitably changes your perspective .. and it happens much more quickly than you’d think.  As Mark Twain says, “You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.”

Worker Bee will start grumbling that Fearless Leader doesn’t understand how difficult some of the challenges are in getting the key projects done on time and needs to back off.  Fearless Leader thinks that Worker Bee is mired in the details and just can’t get with it on the big picture.  Why can’t he understand what is really important, and why does he keep going dark on key issues and leave me, Fearless Leader, out of the loop?  And so forth.

That’s both good and bad.  It means that you will each have to do some work to understand the other’s point of view, but it is also the key that will solve our puzzle.

How Does Fearless Leader Add Value?

There is some notion that managers are supposed to be wiser and more skillful than the people working for them.  But often, they aren’t.  And especially as you get more senior and manage larger teams, it’s pretty much impossible to be better than all of your direct reports at their job.  You will have people working for you with years or decades of experience and deep expertise in their fields .. fields that you often know little or nothing about.  At an extreme, a CEO is very unlikely to be a better engineer than the VP of engineering, a better marketer than the VP of marketing, AND a better salesperson than the VP of sales.  But the CEO is still supposed to lead the team and add value, despite being (often) incapable of doing their job.

In our thought experiment, Fearless Leader is fortunate enough to start out exactly as skillful and capable as Worker Bee.  But, he adds exactly zero value from his additional expertise – he hasn’t got any.  In fact, very shortly he’s going to know less than Worker Bee.  He’s going to meetings (maybe useful ones, or maybe about exciting things like “building an empowered team and enhancing manager capability”) while Worker Bee is writing code or designing products or whatever it is that he or she does.  Fearless Leader’s “doer IQ” will probably be on a steady slope downward, especially if Fearless is a good manager and keeps getting more responsibility.

The more cynical among us might say that Leader’s job is to “do no harm” while others get the job done.  But that is selling the job of manager too short – there are a lot of ways that they should be helping the team:

  • Clearly articulate the mission, strategy, and execution plan.  Since we know that Fearless has no lock on expertise in the team, they aren’t supposed to be the all-knowing sage.  In fact, they generally will not (can not) be the most knowledgeable person about the details of most issues.  Sometimes the answers are defined by somebody else – maybe Fearless’s manager has made it clear what the mission of the team is.  Fearless might not be a programmer but has a lead developer who owns the coding plan and schedule.  Exactly how the mission and plan are determined can vary all over the map – that’s fine.  The thing that Fearless must do is make sure that there is a clear plan, that it has been appropriately validated, and that everyone who needs to know is kept informed.
  • Be a channel of communication up and sideways.  Fearless is in meetings with people up the management chain and in other teams, while Worker Bee is heads down getting things done.   Fearless should be acting as a communication network up, down, and sideways .. representing the team, getting information about what’s going on elsewhere, and bringing it back.
  • Be a fair advocate.  When people are being evaluated, Fearless needs to be a strong but honest advocate.  He or she needs to make sure that everyone in the management team understands the performance of the people on the team, that compensation and promotion are being handled well, and so forth.
  • Be a great coach.  As the manager, Fearless is “watching the movie” that Worker Bee is acting in.  Just like you get a totally different experience (often uncomfortable) watching a video of yourself , Fearless is in the audience for Worker Bee’s movie.  That puts Fearless in a great position to give honest feedback, push Worker Bee to go beyond the comfort zone, and hold Worker Bee accountable.  The best tennis or basketball players in the world have coaches, whom they could generally crush in one-on-one competition .. but still get tremendous value from.  It may be harder, but you can be a fantastic coach without being better at the activity than the person you are coaching.

These are things that I believe managers should be great at, regardless of whether they are more experienced than the people working for them.  Master them, and I think you will be able to say honestly that you’d be a great manager for yourself.

How do you stack up?

Create Every Day

I have always been passionate about making things out of ideas.  One of the great joys is to start from a whim or a flash of inspiration, breathe life into it, make it real, and share it with others.  Drawing, photography, writing, cooking, startups – they all begin as a spark or sometimes a compulsion.  They take form through art and craft and passion, and eventually emerge on some trajectory .. sometimes they soar, sometimes limp, sometimes fall to the earth with a thud.  They don’t always deliver on their early glittering promise.  They can morph in strange and unforeseen ways, yielding the delightfully unexpected or the disappointing or the just plain weird.

I write about that compulsion in a blog about inspiring teams and achieving goals, because the desire to create is one of the oldest and strongest human needs.  We have an accompanying penchant for destruction, unfortunately, but out of the fire and ashes we always begin again and go on to even greater acts of creation.  If you can get a team to commit whole-heartedly to some shared act of creation, the result can be magical.

The idea is the beginning.  It can be flickering and unformed, or it can spring forth almost fully shaped.  It often comes at odd times when my mind is drifting.  I try always to keep a journal nearby and scribble in it often, filling it with fragments and half-glimpsed visions.  Just writing down the beginnings of an idea often starts me along the path.

The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.  – Vladimir Nabakov

Then comes that moment when you have to begin the work.  That can be hard; you aren’t inspired, you aren’t in the mood.  Your tools feel awkward and balky – they don’t fit your hand.   You know that what you are making will be clumsy and lifeless.  In your mind you saw glittering potential, yet here is this pale, lifeless thing that petulantly takes shape in front of you.  You question why you bother, who needs the hassle, it’s all pointless.  Maybe I should go pay some bills – at least then I’ll have done something useful.

But sometimes, it happens.  From somewhere outside your conscious control, the work takes on a form and shape of its own, and you feel that you are the means and not the maker.

It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them.  The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page.  – Joan Baez

It’s a magical feeling, and it has produced some of my favorite results.  I was leafing through a book of portraits, and was absolutely struck by one of Samuel Beckett, the playwright.  He looked just like an Old Testament prophet, his craggy face filled with the marks of a long life, his eyes piercing – I could feel the weight of that stare, the rough texture of the skin.  I wanted to build that up, layer after layer, smearing the graphite with my hands to connect with that tactile sense in my brain.

When I look at the drawing, I remember the feeling of shaping the skin and picking out the pupils of the eyes.  I don’t know exactly how it turned into those marks on the page.  But I see what I felt when I looked at the picture.  I can pick out the technical flaws, but what matters to me is that I captured what I wanted to express.  The moment when you feel like you have broken through, at least for the moment … bliss.

But will it happen again?  I think that’s why artists can be so superstitious, with their muses and their rituals.

After waking up at 5 AM, poet Maya Angelou heads to a nearby hotel with legal pads, a bottle of sherry, a deck of playing cards, a Bible and Roget’s Thesaurus. Per her instructions, hotel staff members have removed all the art and photos from the room’s walls. Before leaving in the afternoon, Angelou usually completes between 10 and 12 pages during her stay, which she edits later that evening.

American writer John Cheever wore his only suit of clothing each morning as he rode the elevator down to a basement room where he worked. Upon arriving there, he would undress to his underwear, hang up his suit, and get to work. He would dress to go back upstairs for lunch and again at the end of his day when he would ride the elevator back home.

In addition to the enforced discipline of a ritual, it seems like they are trying to recreate the conditions that have brought the visitation upon them, because what if it never happens again?  What if it abandons you, leaving you sweating and struggling on your own, forcing out work that can never be as good as what came before it?  To be left staring glumly at a blank sheet that refuses to fill itself with prose breathing life, or a drawing imbued with its own spirit.

I manage to keep my clothes on and work at home .. though perhaps I’d be a better artist if I reconsidered?  I have learned that the only way I can tempt that inner spirit to come forth is to sit down, take a deep breath, and dive in .. even when the water looks cold and dark and uninviting, when there are a hundred other easier and more comfortable things to do. I try to create something every day, however small or incomplete, even when I’m not in the mood.  It’s like exercise – you don’t always feel like doing it, but once you start, you often get swept up in it.  I think it is exercise .. for the brain, and it takes just as much discipline to make yourself start.

You can sit there, tense and worried, freezing the creative energies, or you can start writing something. It doesn’t matter what. In five or ten minutes, the imagination will heat, the tightness will fade, and a certain spirit and rhythm will take over. – Leonard Bernstein

You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world. – Ray Bradbury

What are you creating today?

Are You Falling for the Old “Scooby Snack” Trick?

Remember Scooby?  He’ll do just about any dangerous, scary, unpleasant task that needs to be done, if he can get a Snooby snack or two out of it.  The Scooby snack is a classic example of “extrinsic” motivation – something external that you want.  At work, companies set up all kinds of carefully designed extrinsic motivations – money (bonuses, raises), status (levels, titles), and perks (nicer offices, first class travel).  Their goal is to get you to throw yourself into the work that the company needs to get done, regardless of how fulfilling you find it.  They are happy if you find yourself fulfilled, too, but the system is designed to encourage you to work hard even if you aren’t.

But isn’t that how the world works?  Isn’t the basis of capitalism the desire to better your situation?  Extrinsic motivation certainly works, up to a point.  However, the story is a bit more complicated than that.  We strive to get rewards, but often it isn’t purely about their absolute value.

The Drive for Status

As a species, we’re acutely conscious of our social status.  There have been a number of really interesting studies showing that more money is not the key to happiness after a certain point .. but that making less money than the people around us (regardless of income level) makes us unhappy.  In general, our status is more important than the absolute amount of money we make.  For example, one study examined 12,000 adults in Britain, ranking people based on geography, age, income, and educational level.   “Boyce and Moore found that an individual’s rank, viewed this way, was a stronger predictor of happiness than absolute wealth. The higher a person ranked within his age group or neighborhood, the more status he had and the happier he was regardless of how much he made.”

This focus on status makes a lot of sense when you consider that pre-historic humans were essentially dead if they weren’t part of a group, and that their ability to survive and have children was heavily dependent on their status.  The symbols of success or failure have evolved, but our basic drives have not changed (as you can see in Status Anxiety, Alain De Boton’s fun and thought-provoking book).

All of this research is good background if you decide that you are going to settle for extrinsic motivation – you might as well make sure that you pursue the things that will give the most happiness.  For example, you might be a lot better off hanging out with a different crowd rather than scrabbling for that raise or buying a fancier car.

But I think a much more interesting challenge is to focus on a different model – trying to find an environment that fosters your intrinsic motivation instead.

Motivation from Within

Think about the projects that really made you happy – at work, at home, at school, wherever.  When you were doing them, you couldn’t wait to dig in again.  They are the times you look back on with the most satisfaction.  What do they have in common?  I’m going to guess that it wasn’t the size of your weekly paycheck, the car you drove to work, or the title on your business card.  Those moments in your life are giving you valuable clues as to what really inspires you.

For me, the recipe is pretty simple:

  • I think that what I am doing is new and important
  • I have great people to work with
  • We are all pushing hard to achieve something together as a unified team
  • I am contributing in some meaningful way to the project

That’s pretty much it.  Or, as I like to say, “I want to be with people who inspire me, obsessing together over something worth obsessing about.”  If a project has those things going for it, I’m probably going to be happy.

There is also evidence that people do better work when they are intrinsically motivated.  For an entertaining walk through some of these ideas, try this presentation by Daniel Pink (who also wrote a book about the subject called Drive).  I find it really intriguing that, for a whole range of experiments, larger monetary rewards produced poorer results.  His argument is that there are three key things people seek: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  He talks about how this model helps explain the open source software movement.

My own experience is pretty consistent with this model.  For me, autonomy shows up in two ways.  The most important one is that the team feels that it can do what needs to be done.  That’s often hard within large organizations, and was a significant frustration for me when I worked in one.  It’s one key reason why startups can be so fun – they don’t have much in the way of resources, but they certainly have a lot of autonomy!  Personal autonomy is less important to me – I like working closely with others and am happy to adapt my ideas if there are others around who are making them smarter.  Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I’ve found that as long as the right people are involved, personal autonomy hasn’t been a big problem.

Purpose is crucial.  I have to believe in the project and that it is important.  I may be wrong, or others may believe that I am delusional .. that doesn’t matter.  What matters to me is that I believe it.

Mastery is also a core goal – I want to contribute to the project in some deeply important way by being excellent at something.  Ideally, I’d like to be great at some part of the work (so I add value right away) and I want to build mastery in other skills I didn’t have when I started.

What Motivates You?

I’ve had this conversation with many people, and most of them never sat down to think about their real intrinsic motivations.  Maybe autonomy, mastery, and purpose is it for you .. or maybe your answer will be different.  The key thing is to figure it out.  Otherwise, your employers will be happy to provide an endless supply of organizational Scooby snacks for you to covet and pursue.  Are you settling for that?

Cracking the Nut (Part 4) – Wrapping it Up

It’s time to get this decision landed.  What’s Slimy going to do?

Defining the Possible Solutions

Early in our project, we came up with a list of possible options for competing with BigSludge.  By this time, with all the discussion and analysis, we’re ready to update that list.  We’ve refined some of them, maybe some have crumpled under their own weight, maybe we have some new ones.

In our case, here is what came out of our investigations:

  • Direct head to head competition in their core markets looks like a losing strategy.  We went and talked to people on the front lines, we talked to some customers we’d like to convince to use our industrial slime, and we mapped out what kind of return we’d get from additional spending on marketing and sales.  It all looks lousy.  BigSludge is entrenched, they have relationships we can’t disrupt, the market is pretty locked in, and our products aren’t different enough to give us a unique value proposition.
  • We found some intriguing sub-markets where we are doing really well.  We’ve gotten serious traction selling slime for cleaning the grime out of industrial manufacturing machines.  And, you can cover buried power generation plants with it to reduce temperature fluctuation and do weather proofing.  BigSludge has no presence in those markets and our products work much better for these uses, so our specialized slime offerings are growing quickly and have a good head start.
  • The kid market for prank slime looks like a potential winner.  We’ve tested our slime out with kids, our test version is flying off the shelves, and it’s showed up in a couple of edgy TV shows as the Next Big Thing.  Word of mouth is strong.
  • The kid market will take several years to develop.  Based on every precedent we’ve looked at, it just isn’t possible to grow a large new toy market quickly.  No product we looked at that relied on selling through retail channels was able create a new category and grow to a large size in less than five years.

So our updated options are:

  1. Aggressively pursue the specialty commercial markets
  2. Aggressively pursue the kid market
  3. Do a blend of both

The next step is (yes, you saw this coming) to write them down.  We put together a summary for each:

  • Define the option in one page.  Capture the intuition for it, and keeping it short forces us to stick to the essentials.
  • What’s the plan – outline how we’d execute on this idea in very concrete terms.  Milestones, key steps.
  • What you have to believe.  I learned about this approach from a class I took on strategy, and I’ve found that it is a really useful way to capture the key assumptions for a particular option.  You write down the key things that you have to believe in order for the option to be viable/optimal:
Option What you Have to Believe
Pursue specialty commercial markets Slimy can make enough revenue from these markets to sustain our growth needs and can protect our position from BigSludge and other competitors.
Pursue kid market The market is big, viable, and will develop quickly enough to compensate for relatively flat growth in the core business.
Pursue both Slimy Inc is capable of effectively carrying both initiatives forward at the same time (resources, time/focus of management team).  And, the kid market will be slow enough to develop that we need some nearer term revenue.

Evaluating the Options

By the time you have written down the options in more detail, sometimes you will find that the decision basically makes itself.  It is obvious to everyone that one makes the most sense and you are done.  That’s a nice outcome.  But let’s assume we aren’t so lucky; how are we going to decide?

The next thing I do is to assess every option against every one of the criteria we came up with in part 2 (link).  There are two basic ways to go after this – quantitative and qualitative.

Quantitative – if you want, you can create a precise mathematical model to weigh your options.  You can build a spreadsheet with a numerical value for each of the criteria against each option and a weighting factor per criterion.  Then the spreadsheet will happily compute a score for each option, and the highest score ought to be the answer, right?  I’ve done that before, and it has been useful on occasion, but I think it generally gives a false sense of precision to the exercise.  Your tidy spreadsheet full of numbers and formulas can leave you convinced that you are engaged in a scientific analysis.  But you aren’t, really.  At the end of the day, you are making a decision based on (informed) guesses about the future and intuitively chosen priorities.  So I usually don’t bother to build that spreadsheet.

Qualitative – what I generally find more useful is to assign a rough score (maybe 1/2/3 or A/B/C/D/F) to each option for each of the criteria.  Have a justification for each score, so you don’t spend all your time arguing about B’s vs. C’s when people look at the table.  Then eyeball the result and you are in a pretty good position to decide, or to have the debate among the decision makers if it isn’t up to you.  The Slimy, Inc table might look something like this (note that we updated our criteria a bit):

  Specialty commercial Kid market Both
Medium term revenue (3 yrs) A C B
Long term revenue (5-10 yrs) B A B
Risk of revenue projection B D C
Ability to execute A C D

It might seem much too simplistic at first to distill many, many hours of analysis and detail into a little chart with A/B/C/D on it.  But I have found that there is remarkable power in simplicity.  It’s like the old line about writing a shorter letter if you had more time.  Having to summarize a mountain of analysis in a very succinct form forces you to commit.  Complexity is often a security blanket against making a hard call – as long you as you can say “on the one hand, on the other hand”, you can avoid making a decision.  By committing to the values in the table, it gets you in the habit and helps walk you towards the harder ultimate decision that you are trying to make.

And now that you have all the analysis done, and summarized .. get whomever you need in a room, and DECIDE!


I hope that this approach to analyzing issues has given you some tools that you can use the next time you are confronted with a difficult decision.  Use as many or as few of the tools as you need .. in some cases, as in Part I, you might just pick a couple of them.  Other times, when facing a really complex and involved question, you might need to throw the kitchen sink at it.

Remember that no tool or approach will make a tough decision for you – that’s your job.  And a hard decision will stay hard no matter what.  But a framework like this one can let you approach it with what I like to call systematic subjectivity – you make your judgments in a systematic and thoughtful way that helps you wade through unknowns and emotional entrapments.  Good luck!

P.S.  Slimy decided to aggressively pursue the specialty commercial markets.  They will continue to incubate the kid products to see whether they get further traction.

What is Your “Super-Power”?

It’s a skill that has always come easily to you and you wonder why other people seem to struggle so much to master it.  Your team automatically looks to you when it is needed and assumes that you will be the one to do it.  You invent new and creative angles while you are daydreaming in the shower.  When you look back on a project, the times you were exercising this skill are the times that come most vividly to mind.  You feel like you are flying when you are using it.

These are all clues that can help you find what my old team called your super-power.

What Does a Super-Power Look Like?

Your super-power might be something that people are used to thinking about – you are amazing at playing the piano, or speaking in public, or throwing a ball.  But it might be something much less obvious.  There are many, many different kinds of things that people excel at.  While our society celebrates remarkable skill in athletics or performance, I love to look for and to be inspired by unusual intellectual achievements.

For example, I’ve known some truly amazing programmers.  I was one of the best coders around when I was an undergrad .. and then I met these people, who just utterly crush me in their ability to construct large systems at seemingly super-human speed.  I worked with one of them who could hold tens of thousands of lines of code in his mind; he could see instantly how to create some new feature or modify the design in a fundamental way.  I could work through the system and build up the knowledge in my head to get to the same goal, but he had the whole system on tap and immediately saw the solution.  No amount of practice on my part would ever leave me able to match him at that particular skill.  It was his super-power.

Richard Feynman was a brilliant Nobel Prize winning physicist who wrote a set of highly entertaining stories about his life.  One of my favorite anecdotes was about his use of visual metaphor to grasp deeply complex abstract ideas.  He would use this to test new topology theorems:

For instance, the mathematicians would come in with a terrific theorem, and they’re all excited.  As they’re telling me the conditions of the theorem, I construct something which fits all the conditions … the balls turn colors, grow hairs, or whatever in my head as they put more conditions on.  Finally they state the theorem, which is some dumb thing about the ball which isn’t true for my hairy green ball thing, so I say, “False!”

He was famous for creating visualizations of abstruse ideas that would let you use intuition rather than mathematical formulas.  Other physicists would be laboriously building up their mental models using mathematics and other abstractions and he could leap to insights that they could never have gotten without hours or days of contemplation.  Now that’s a cool super-power.  But it isn’t one that most people would think of as a “skill”.

I hope these examples encourage you to look beyond the obvious and find the skills where you really stand out.

Investing in Your Super-Power

Even if you are naturally great at something, you have to hone it.  Michael Jordan was legendary for ruthlessly pushing himself to practice and prepare harder than anyone else.  If he had settled for a pickup game or two every week, he’d never have become the incredible player that he was.  Louis Pasteur said “Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goals: my strength lies solely in my tenacity.”  There are many, many similar quotes from people who have accomplished great things.  It is consistent with recent scientific studies, popularized by people like Malcolm Gladwell and Geoff Colvin, that magic happens when a talented person uses deliberate practice to develop a skill for 10,000 hours.

But if you are going to invest that kind of time and effort into something, you’ll get a much better result if you are betting on something you excel at.  Lots of people are pretty good at lots of things .. you’ll achieve a more distinctive result if you invest massive time and energy in something that you are remarkably good at.  And, you’ll be much more likely to stick with it, if you enjoy it.  So I believe that one of the great quests is to find those things and to design your life to practice and exercise them as much as you can.  I’m convinced that it is also one of the ways to be happiest and most passionate about what you are doing.

Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success. When you do a thing, do it with all your might. Put your whole soul into it. Stamp it with your own personality. Be active, be energetic, be enthusiastic and faithful, and you will accomplish your object. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.      Ralph Waldo Emerson

Finding Places to Apply It

Once you have figured out what you do distinctively well and commit to honing that skill towards excellence, you need to find a place to use it where it is valuable and valued (those are not the same thing!).  Any super-power is probably going to come in handy now and then, but you won’t get equal leverage from it in every environment.  Being a dynamic and inspiring public speaker is not as useful to an accountant as it is to a teacher.  Being rigorously analytical is probably not the first super-power you’d pick if you want to be a great actor.

Ask yourself what activities rely on and benefit disproportionately from your superpower.  Where do people congregate who are amazing at it?  Whom do you admire and seek to emulate while doing it?  What job do they have?  Where do they work?  These are all clues.  Ask around, too .. there may be many worlds of activity you don’t know anything about, where your abilities may be much more valued than you realize.

You’d also like to be in an organizational culture that values your skill.  Visual design is crucial in building great software, but different companies in the software industry vary dramatically in how much they value designers.  Find somebody else who is great at what you do (maybe they blog or write articles?) and figure out where they work.  More clues.  You probably won’t find any permanent answers .. but over time, through successive approximation, you can find productive places to exercise your super-power.  You might have to design your own job (or your own company) to get there – super-powers often don’t fit into boxes that were neatly labeled by other people.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said something that I’ve tried to take to heart: “Most people die with the music still in them.”  Find your super-power .. and let it sing!

Cracking the Nut (Part 3) – Heart of the Analysis

Carrying forward from part 1 and part 2, we’ve gotten the foundations laid down, so let’s keep powering ahead.


This is the quadrant where we focus on two areas: what we need to know that is knowable and what’s blocking us.

Know What Is Knowable

As we saw in Part 2 (link), there is a big debate within Slimy Inc about the potential size of the kid’s slime market and our ability to generate revenue in the commercial slime market against the dominance of BigSludge.  While these are both predictions about the future and hence cannot be perfectly known, they are subject to analysis.  By bringing some data into the conversation, we can help reduce the uncertainty around the value to assign to these criteria for our various options.

Figuring out the potential kid market is probably the hardest problem.  There is always a lot of risk in any new kind of product, but we can do many kinds of analysis to get insight: look at comparable products that we would be competing with/displacing, consider which channels we could use to go to market and how hard it will be to break into them, look at the historical ramp of comparable products, and so forth.  Beyond analysis, we need to actually get into the market and mix it up in the real world with some customers and partners.  We could sell samples through a handful of selected toy stores, or give some away to kids and get their reactions, or do a limited advertising campaign and see what kind of response we get.  The key thing here is, as Steve Blank says, to get out of the building.  All of these tests will give us some data about how much our target audience will actually want our product, what market size we could aspire to, how to build our sales at what cost, and how quickly we could expect it to grow under best/average/worst case.

The other question should be easier to answer – we probably have a lot of insight into our ability to compete with BigSludge, because we have products in market and have been selling them.  There is always the possibility of some brilliant new stroke that changes the game, but in the absence of that kind of insight, we probably know the channels, the costs, the margins, and the levers that exist in the current business.  So we can estimate with some degree of accuracy how much revenue/margin we can generate doing the kinds of things that are conventionally done.  If somebody has a clever idea for disruption, we should do some analysis/investigation to get a sense of how much to expect from it.

The net of these exercises should be some real data on what we can expect under a variety of different assumptions.  That helps assign a value to each criterion for the proposal under consideration.  Think about each one and ask whether you are ready to assess the proposals against it, or if you need more information to do it as well as possible.

Know What’s Blocking the Decision

Many things can block the ability to make a decision aside from the inherent uncertainty about what to do.  In our case, after thinking it through, we realize that there are three:

  1. This decision is supposedly owned by the VP of marketing, but everyone knows that he doesn’t have the authority to make it stick.
  2. One of the original founders of Slimy Inc., who is very influential, is hell-bent on going into the kid slime market.  He’s going to reject any plan that doesn’t focus on that.
  3. The possibly acquisition of Slimy by BigSludge is really distracting senior management.  They aren’t sure how aggressively they want to go after BigSludge until that’s landed, so they will be reluctant to rock the boat.

Any of these three things could torpedo our whole effort.  There is no point in beavering away and coming up with a great answer, if nobody is going to pay attention or act on it.  So we have to get all three resolved in some fashion, or we need to reconsider if there is any point to the whole project.


That leads us to the “housekeeping” quadrant – all the scaffolding we need to drive the project.  There are a series of important questions we need to think through:

  • Who are the stakeholders and what is their role?  Who can make the decision and make it stick?  Who needs to be consulted before the decision is landed?  Who can veto it?  Who needs to know after we’ve landed it?
  • What are we delivering?  A deck?  A presentation?  A document?  To whom?  When is it due?
  • Workback/milestones – are there any needed steps along the way?  Maybe an early review where we present progress and get feedback?
  • Key open issues – from our analysis so far, we should have a pretty good idea of the open issues – list them, get them owned and driven and landed.
  • Workstreams – are there any sub-projects that have a life of their own and need to be owned/driven?  Maybe that analysis of the kid market, which might involve finding stores and doing trial sales and evaluating results and doing mini-ad campaigns.
  • Next actions – what specific actions need to happen next?  Who will do them?

That’s the heart of the analysis.  In the next post, we’ll wrap it up and land the decision.

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