Beware the Shining Paladin From Afar

Companies often fall into the trap of believing they can hire some external person to be their salvation – a shining knight who will lead them out of the darkness and into the promised land.  There are times when this works, but in my experience those are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the failures.  Why?  And can we learn something from the failures to try and avoid them?

The idea is very appealing.  If we as an organization are failing – maybe we are getting creamed by some competitor, or our formerly successful product is moldering into obsolescence and we can’t seem to get with the program on a modern reinvention of it.  Shouldn’t we invigorate the tired old blood in the team with a turbo-shot of new thinking?  Well, maybe.  But if we do, we’d better think about the many ways that this tends to fail.

Internal Pathology

We might be failing because of a systemic problem within the company.  This problem might be organizational (there is no team that cleanly owns the charter, so it keeps falling between groups), personal (somebody influential and passionate is preventing us from pursuing a workable strategy), failure of execution (the team that owns it isn’t healthy or effective), failure to focus (the team that owns the problem fundamentally doesn’t care about solving it), or strategic (the team gets pushed by company leaders into building overly general solutions that collapse of their own weight).

Fixing these problems can require a lot of organizational savvy and trust from the rest of the company; a newcomer is often much less capable of solving them than a seasoned employee.  Add to that the burden of expectations, and you have a situation designed to create failure.

Teacher’s Pet

Many times, I’ve watched a senior person get frustrated with a team, so they stick in some new blood and hope for the best.  The team can resent the newcomer as a teacher’s pet or “golden child” who hasn’t paid any dues.  Who are they to come in and start shooting off their mouth, without knowing anything about the team or the product?

For example, a friend of mine was hired by the president of a division to come in and shake things up in a new direction.  My friend gave an exciting pitch about the opportunities the team had and wasn’t taking advantage of.  He was put inside a group that had no buy-in to those new ideas, and which took its cue from somebody who had helped create the division and been responsible for some of its great successes.  Who also wasn’t bought in.  How receptive do you think the team was to my friend’s ideas?  Right, zero.  It was a massively frustrating experience for him and a waste of energy for the team, which of course went on to do exactly as it had before. 

Cultural Rejection

Teams can be a lot like the immune system, which “will try to destroy or neutralize any antigen that is recognized as a foreign and potentially harmful invader.”  People coming into the team, especially people brought in because they think differently and aren’t bound by the dominant assumptions shared by everyone else, are just bristling with antigens.  They use different language and terminology, they say things that seem off-key.  Often the instinctive rejection is so strong that their ideas don’t get a fair hearing.

Missing Key Skills

Having worked at both startups and large companies, I know how deeply different the success factors can be in those two environments.  People who flourish in a smaller community don’t always have (or value!) the skills to negotiate the internal landscape of a large company.  A big company might hire somebody who was winning, and the big company hoped that this person can transform its efforts.  If I’m that new person, why would I abandon my successful approach and adopt ideas from this team that has failed?  What could they have to teach me?

The problem is that the way you run an independent team for success, and the way you run a team inside of a big company, is quite different.  There is some overlap, but there is a lot of non-overlap.  As the new person, I have a lot to learn.  It’s very hard to figure out which traits I bring that are uniquely valuable and must be preserved, and which ones I have to supplement or replace in order to be effective in my new environment.

Wrap Up

I’m certainly not advocating that companies refuse to bring in new blood – it is crucial that they do.  But those people, especially if they are brought in to turn around a failing situation, have to negotiate a minefield.  The company needs to think hard about whether the problem it has is one that an outsider is really equipped to solve.  And it can’t expect that outsider to solve it alone – he or she is likely to need seasoned partners who can help translate that new perspective into a form that others can understand and act on.  Paladins seem like lone crusaders, but they wouldn’t have gotten very far without a host of supporters ranging from squires to armorers (not to mention the most important one – their horse!).  Before you try to hire one, make sure it’s what you really need … and don’t leave them unmounted and unsupported, or you are likely to have a bruised and grumpy knight on your hands pretty soon.

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!

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?

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!

Conclusion

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.

Context

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.

Meta

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.

Cracking the Nut (Part 2) – Tackling a Messy Problem

In the last post, we used the model to analyze a constrained problem.  Now, we’ll take on something a lot more open ended.

We work for Slimy Inc, an upstart company in the hotly competitive market for slime.  There is a dominant player in the market – BigSludge – and we are trying to figure out how to compete with them.  The traditional slime market is focused on commercial uses, and we’ve been having a tough time competing with BigSludge because they are the market leader and far larger than we are.  But, we’ve created some innovative new slime for kids to play with – a radical development in the slime market.  We’re definitely going to be first to market, though we have heard that BigSludge has a team investigating toy slime.

There is a raging debate within Slimy, Inc about how to compete with BigSludge.   Some people want to continue going after them head-on in the large commercial market, relying on our superior products.  Others want to put all the company’s efforts into the new kid slime product line (but is there really a big enough market, and will it develop soon enough?).  Another faction is pushing for an acquisition – BigSludge knows about the cool new products we’ve come up with, and they’ve had a couple of discussions with our leadership team about it.  As usual, there are dozens of variations of these basic ideas, and they’ve gotten tangled up with each other.  Emotions are running high and discussions have been going around in a circle.

We’ve been asked to take on this problem, analyze it, and get the decision landed.  The stakes are high – the decision will probably determine the future of the company and perhaps its very survival.  So, it’s time to get methodical.

Defining the Problem

We start here, as always.  The problem may seem obvious, but often the various stakeholders in the conversation have quite different notions.  So we’ll start with a statement of the problem, and it’s incredibly important that we write it down.  There is a great quote by Leslie Lamport, a well known computer scientist: “we write things down in order to realize how poorly we understand them.”  In our case, we land on this: “what strategy should Slimy use to compete with BigSludge?

Looking at the other tools in the quadrant, there are a couple that will be helpful.

Scope – what is in and out of scope for our problem solving effort?  In this case, let’s put the decision to pursue acquisition out of scope – that’s an interesting analysis, but it’s pretty separate from figuring out how to compete.  Our project may provide good insight, though: if we can’t come up with any compelling way to compete, then we may have a lot more enthusiasm about acquisition.  But we’ll confine our scope to competing with BigSludge.  We also have to make sure we get the key people to agree on our proposed scope!

Assumptions, Axioms, and Principles – I think of these as the foundation of the analysis, and they are incredibly useful to work through and write down.  They are related notions, but I try thinking about all of them to see which are most relevant to the problem at hand.

  • Assumptions – something you believe to be true, but you are aware that you might be wrong.  “There is a large potential market for toy slime that BigSludge will not be able to address for at least three years”.  Once you’ve identified your assumptions, you can decide how risky they are, how much your potential wrongness could hurt you, and hence how much you need to validate them.
  • Axiom – “a self-evident truth that requires no proof” – you simply accept an axiom without debate or validation.  In our case, an axiom might be “commercial slime is an essential need for current customers and nothing will replace it in the market during the next ten years.”  Your axioms can save you a lot of time, since you don’t need to bother analyzing them.  But, they are obviously dangerous, because if you are wrong about them, you can choose a really bad path.  DEC had an axiom that PCs weren’t a threat because they were too small to do “real computing” – and DEC paid dearly for that axiom by going out of business and being acquired in a fire sale by one of those scorned PC makers.  So one of my main reasons to poke on axioms is that groups generally have a set of them that are accepted unconsciously and unquestioningly.  It is worth teasing them out and stating them explicitly to make sure that they really should be axioms, and are not just questionable assumptions masquerading as revealed truth.
  • Principles – a core belief that you are going to follow.  Ex: “we will produce no toxic by-products in our manufacturing processes” or “we will tell every customer the turnaround for any order within 2 days of accuracy.”  Principles help you be clear about what you believe in, and they guide you in terms of what solutions you are willing and able to consider.

Goals and Defining Success – often when people are disagreeing about a course of action, it is because they don’t agree on what “success” means.  Are we trying to achieve a good ROI on our product development investments? Establish ourselves as the share leader in a new market?  Win share from BigSludge in the current market?  Grow revenue or profit by a certain amount?  Survive as a company?

I have found it best for the goal of a project like this to be succinct and measurable.  I also prefer if the goal

  • Doesn’t pre-suppose a particular strategy.  In our case, if we define the goal to be “create a large new market for slime”, then it heavily influences the approaches we can use to get there.
  • Is defined positively, not negatively.  I much prefer “radically increase our revenue and profitability” vs. “take share from our competitor”.  The negative approach can lock you into a zero-sum mentality, rather than creatively looking for any way to achieve your true goal.  Presumably what you really want is to make massive amounts of revenue and profit, regardless of what your competition does.

For our purposes, we will use this: “a successful strategy will yield a set of quickly growing product lines in the market that have higher profitability than anything we currently sell.”

Constraints – we are always under many constraints and we need to understand how they limit our options.  They might involve resources (money or people), legal requirements, etc.

Solution criteria – just like we did in the last post, we will need to come up with a ranked set of criteria for evaluating our options.  This is often the hardest part of defining the problem; fierce disagreements are often disguised arguments about the criteria.  For example, we have one group that wants to tackle BigSludge head on in their core market, which is large and well established.  Another wants to dedicate the company’s resources to expanding into the new kid slime market.  What’s going on?

The real challenge is that there are competing (and valid) criteria to judge potential strategies.  In this case, they are:

  • Size of the target market – one group questions whether the kid market is real and large.  There is no question that the current market is large.
  • Growth of the target market – the current market is mature and is growing with GDP.  We don’t know of anything on the horizon that will change its trajectory (per our axiom above).  The future of the kid market is much harder to predict; if the company can really nail an offering, it could be a huge and high growth market.  Or, it could stay tiny because only the early kid adopters will ever bother playing with slime.
  • Riskiness of our market prediction – obviously one is not risky in terms of its existing, the other is high risk.  Also, BigSludge has that research group that might get a clue and develop a competing offering in the kid market – it’s unclear how long we can have it to ourselves.
  • Ability to capture target market – to get the traditional market, you have to find a way to compete with BigSludge and take share or expand the market somehow.  The company probably has a pretty good sense of how hard this will be and has some ability to execute on it, but it may be very difficult to succeed.  To create a whole new market, even if the demand is there, calls for specialized skills and new partner relationships and the like.  Does Slimy have what it takes to pull this off?

The disagreement between the two groups is a disagreement about the value to assign to each criteria and the relative priority of the criteria.  This is really key to understand.  Until you start digging at the real basis of the disagreement, you will often go around in circles and everybody will just get locked more deeply into their point of view.

The faction that wants to go after the traditional market believes that (a) the opportunity in the kid market is small and will stay small, (b) betting on that market is much too risky and will take a lot of energy to pursue, and (c) Slimy doesn’t have what it takes to create new markets.  The other group believes that (a) the kid market has huge potential, that (b) it will grow quickly, (c) Slimy is in a good position to take a risk for huge upside, and (d) the company can learn how to sell to a new audience.  They also (e) doubt whether Slimy can compete effectively with BigSludge in their core market.  So the two groups differ on:

  • The value to assign to a criteria: is the kid market going to be large and high growth or small?   Can Slimy really make headway in the traditional market?  These questions can’t be answered perfectly, of course, since you are predicting a future outcome.  But you can certainly get data to support the analysis.
  • The relative priority of the criteria.  One group is risk-averse, the other isn’t.  This is a useful debate – how much risk is the company willing to take on?  What kinds of risk?

The key thing you can do with an analysis like this is move the debate from an unproductive place – “We should go after the kid market!” “That’s crazy, we should go after the money, and that’s in the commercial market!” – to a much more useful discussion around the real issues – can we get facts to assign values to the criteria more confidently, and how should we prioritize competing values?  These are still very hard questions, and they still require us to make decisions in the face of uncertainty.  But they let us focus our energies on reducing the key points of uncertainty and on having debates that we can actually settle.

We’ve now got the foundation in place for our problem solving effort – we know the problem to solve and its scope, we know what our goal is, we have articulated our principles and assumptions, and we know how we’re going to evaluate possible courses of action.  Next, we’ll move on to other quadrants of the model.

What Makes Mentoring Work

If you haven’t had or been a mentor, it’s something that is worth thinking about.  The right mentor can be inspiring, opening your eyes to new ideas and helping you tackle bigger and bolder challenges.  It can also be a lot of fun for the mentor, who gets to coach enthusiastic people without having to deal with the day to day stresses of direct management (I think it’s a bit like being a grandparent – you get to do a lot of the fun parts, without all the responsibility).  I’ve been lucky enough to have some really good experiences with mentoring, though I’ve also seen plenty that didn’t work out so well.

Picking the Right Mentor

Since this is a relationship between two people, obviously it matters a lot whether there is a good fit.  What kind of person should you look for as a mentor?  Some things to consider:

  • The mentor probably should be further along in their career, but maybe not too much further.  You want the mentor to have some wisdom and perspective you don’t have (yet).   However, if they are vastly more senior, they may not be as useful in terms of helping you get your job done.  A lot of really senior people have forgotten how to be effective at more practical jobs.  They may have really interesting ideas and advice to share that are eye-opening and inspiring (or depressing!) to hear about, but often those insights have relatively little relevance to you day to day.  So if you are shooting the moon in terms of connecting with somebody much farther along than you are, keep in mind that you may get less immediately useful advice.
  • Look for somebody with different life experiences.  When I first become responsible for a business, my background was in pure engineering.  I was lucky enough to have a mentor who had successfully created a billion dollar business within Microsoft.  He was full of insights that I desperately needed to understand, and I learned a tremendous amount from him during our discussions.  I bombarded him with questions about working with the sellers, pitching to enterprise customers, helping to close deals, and doing the crucial back office arm wrestling with the sales team.
  • It’s helpful if you have something in common.  There are many benefits of diversity, but there is a lot of evidence from relationship research that people who have more in common tend to be more likely to form lasting relationships.  I’ve found that it can be harder for mentors to really connect and add value if they come at the world with a radically different model than their mentee.

At the end of the day, probably the most critical thing about making a mentoring relationship work is “do you like each other and want to spend time together?”  Mentoring is usually optional, and everyone is very busy, so it will take an effort to get and keep meetings on the calendar with a hundred other priorities competing for attention.

What Do You Talk About?

You might get a mentor who has a very well defined notion of what to do during your 1:1, and has a plan for it.  You might also sprout wings and discover that you can fly (hey, it could happen!).  For everyone else, you want to have a plan – most mentors feel like they’ve done their bit if they have actually cleared space on their calendar and are ready to meet with you.

I like to prep for a mentoring session by bringing in a set of topics to see which ones intrigue the mentor.  I usually bring in three or four for an hour discussion, so we have good fodder even if one or two of them aren’t a success.

A couple of things that have worked well for me:

  • Pose a problem I’m wrestling with.  Obviously you will get more value if it is in a domain they know about.  For example, if they are an experienced manager, they are likely to have been in a situation similar to one you are dealing with and have ideas about how to handle it.  At least they can usually give you lots of cases where they tried things that didn’t work!  Once, I was working with a direct who was really struggling, and I talked things through with my mentor.  I knew in my heart that it probably wasn’t going to work out, but I didn’t want to admit it.  After we talked, my mentor said something that really stuck with me: “Every time I have failed with somebody, I always waited too long.  I’ve never moved too quickly.”  That’s been true for me, too.  I don’t like to give up on anyone, especially a talented person I like but who is in a role where they aren’t and won’t be successful.  Getting a trusted outsider’s opinion can help you realize when you’ve dug yourself into a hole.
  • Hunt for best practices.  Yes, I will admit that I am a bit obsessed with best practices – that’s a lot of what I write about on this blog – because I love to find tools, ideas, approaches that are really effective.  I’ve gathered a tremendous number of great ideas from other people, and I’m always on the hunt for more of them.  I’ve found that most successful people have a “toolbox” that they apply in a wide variety of situations.  Some people are very “meta” and will be able to quickly articulate those best practices.  So you can ask “When you <do some activity>, what works really well for you?” (where the activity might be anything from managing a team to doing an all-hands presentation to preparing a board review to architecting a high-scale distributed system).  Others are not so good at this, so you need to tease the best practices out by asking more specific questions: “Last fiscal year, how did you get your scorecard targets right, and what worked/didn’t work well?”  “When you built the back end for that service, how did you minimize the time to recovery when the database instance failed?  How would you change your design if you were starting over?”

As a mentor, I use some of the same conversations that I have with my directs as a manager (and which I’ll be writing up as separate posts), like “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and “how to ace your exit interview”.  These are exercises that I think can really help people introspect and come to useful insights.

Have you had great or awful mentoring experiences?  What worked and didn’t work?