Luck And Learning

July 1, 2014

Quote from the entrepreneur Richard Farleigh:

Do you remember your best and worst business decisions?

I can remember the worst ones. Psychologists say when something works well we put it down to ourselves, and when something goes badly we put it down to luck. I try the opposite. All you can say is you learnt from each one.

See also here, on the fascination of failure.


Apple, Microsoft and Google

June 16, 2014

Interesting and lengthy post by Jon Gruber, motivated by the recent Apple World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), which discusses Apple’s CEO Tim Cook’s assertion that:

“Apple engineers platforms, devices, and services together. We do this so that we can create a seamless experience for our users that is unparalleled in the industry. This is something only Apple can do.”

Is this true, though? Is Apple the only company that can do this? I think it’s inarguable that they’re the only company that is doing it, but Cook is saying they’re the only company that can.

Apple, Google, and Microsoft each offer all three things: devices, services, and platforms. But each has a different starting point. With Apple it’s the device. With Microsoft it’s the platform. With Google it’s the services.

And thus all three companies can brag about things that only they can achieve. What Cook is arguing, and which I would say last week’s WWDC exemplified more so than at any point since the original iPhone in 2007, is that there are more advantages to Apple’s approach.

Or, better put, there are potentially more advantages to Apple’s approach, and Tim Cook seems maniacally focused on tapping into that potential.


That Vision Thing

May 27, 2014

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Odd how this often gets submerged in the daily grind of things.

 


The Apple Approach

May 19, 2014

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This infographic from Lifehack caught my eye.

Apple wasn’t just Steve Jobs of course and in all likelihood reality was far more complex than that illustrated above but it’s nevertheless stimulating food for thought. In particular the emphasis on secrecy which is quite at odds with ‘sharing’ company cultures.

An example is provided by the iPhone development project (see here):

Secrecy on the project was so rigid that the few employees who were directly involved (Christie described his team as “shockingly small” but wouldn’t elaborate on an exact figure) could only work on it at home if they did so in a secluded part of their homes, cut off from other family members. All images of the device were to be encrypted.

 


Building The Ability To Recover

May 9, 2014

“Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume, as is almost always the case, that our people’s intentions are good and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen, and let people fix them. If there is fear, there is a reason – our job is to find the reason and to remedy it. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.” – Ed Catmull

This quote made me think about the time when I managed a team of consultants. On the whole matters were fine but occasionally I’d get a problem where I’d have to step in and sort things out (with the customer and consultant). Most of the issues were ‘people problems’, personality conflicts and so on.

Looking back, partly due to the hectic pace of work, I mostly adopted the approach of ‘patch and move on’ whilst bearing in mind to avoid similar situations in the future (by allocating different staff). However this didn’t resolve the underlying problem. As the quote above highlights, it’s sometimes best to identify the underlying reason and then try to remedy it (with the person concerned) even if this can be a time-consuming process.

The quote above was spotted on Brain Pickings.


The Benefits Of Regularly Looking Backwards And Forwards

April 22, 2014

I’ve written previously on the powerful impact of carrying out (honest) reviews (for both projects and individual work). I came across an interesting variation on this theme that works for organisations and is called the Snippets system (from the free e-book here):

During Google’s growth stage, Larry Schwimmer, an early software engineer, stumbled upon a deceptively simple solution that persists to this day at Google and throughout Silicon Valley. In this system called Snippets, employees receive a weekly email asking them to write down what they did last week and what they plan to do in the upcoming week. Replies get compiled in a public space and distributed automatically the following day by email.

The Snippets process at any scale is a compelling productivity solution, and companies of all sizes have adopted it. Some, like SV Angel, rich in Google DNA, do daily snippets.

The routine process encourages employees to reflect and jot down a forward-looking plan for getting stuff done, all while requiring a minimal disruption in the employee’s actual work.

It sounds very attractive but I’m curious how it actually works in practice – how honest is everyone, how scalable is it really, how easy is it to spot unexpected connections in a mass of information? However I can imagine that if you can get such a system working well (as I’m sure you can) it would be incredibly powerful.

It reminded me a bit of a more standard system that I’d come across earlier that also incorporated the personal touch (the latter part wouldn’t scale easily but has advantages in it’s own right).

When I left academia in the late 80’s, I had a position at the UK IBM Scientific Centre in Winchester (specialising in research in data visualisation). Looking back now, I was terribly inexperienced with anything to do with business, so the ideas of professional management practices and business development and so on were quite alien to me. As a consequence I had to learn a lot in a short time.

One aspect that fascinated me was the way they did monthly group progress meetings. Every month everyone would briefly write down and circulate their key achievements and plans for the future as well as raise any issues that others could potentially help with. In addition, in the actual meeting everyone summarised their main points in 5 minutes or less. All staff were treated on the same footing so no one got more time than any other. Waffling on was cleverly regulated by the manager starting to look around the room and feigning a total lack of interest – it’s amazing how powerful that simple ploy can be!

These meetings were incredibly useful – it was good to have to think back on what I’d actually done in the last month, what was a problem and my initial ideas for the next month. It also meant that, as we were all working in different areas, we had to explain what we were doing (although technically very advanced) in a relatively simple and jargon-free manner (a very useful skill). The manager would then decide what were the highlights for that month (just one or two of the maybe 50 items discussed) and then summarise the rest.

The summary, just one or two pages, then got circulated around to the other groups. Quite often links and connections were discovered in these meetings that we’d not been aware of even though informal ‘water cooler’ conversations were an integral part of the way we worked.

It was a simple idea but very effective in practice and similar in spirit to the Snippets idea above. In a modern context, we were doing proactive ‘knowledge management’ through ‘creative conversations and smart summaries’. The clever part was managing the overall process without using a heavy hand, thereby encouraging honesty and fruitful participation.

It might seem that this idea is rather trivial and commonplace but that’s not my experience. After leaving IBM I worked for a number of research agencies and, although they did similar things, none approached the usefulness and directness of the IBM approach described above. I always had the feeling that in these organisations such meetings were activities you ‘had’ to do (and were essentially bureaucratic in nature) rather than something creative, motivating and useful. So just how you do it (preferably very brief and to the point, and stressing connections) is extremely important.

Maybe some of these knowledge sharing ideas can profitably be used in your organisation?

 


Communicating Clearly What You’ve Done

April 11, 2014

Fortunately my days of annual appraisals and writing/reviewing CVs are long over but I’ve always been interested in the question of how you best summarise what you’ve done. It’s relevant to general conversations as well of course, especially with people that don’t know you well.

In this context, there’s an interesting post on a survey that was carried out for CareerBuilder to identify the most effective words to use in a résumé:

One in six (17 percent) hiring managers spend 30 seconds or less, on average, reviewing résumés, according to a new CareerBuilder survey. A majority (68 percent) spend less than two minutes. With so little time to capture interest, even a candidate’s word choice can make a difference. The nationwide sample of employers identified which commonly-used résumé terms are overused or cliché and which are strong additions.

Unhelpful words to use were (worst first): best of breed, go-getter, think outside the box, synergy, go-to person, thought leadership, value add, results-driven, team player and so on (no surprises there of course).

Conversely, helpful words to use were (best first): achieved, improved, trained/mentored, managed, created, resolved, volunteered, influenced, increased/decreased and so on.

The overall message is that it’s best to focus on the choice of action-oriented verbs rather than (often hackneyed) nouns and adjectives!

It also emphasises that when someone has ‘done something’ the precise words used are so important. For example, if someone is in a project team, although they can’t say they managed the project, they can say a whole load of other very impressive things: improved, trained, created, resolved etc.

In fact, the list of verbs given in the article might be a useful trigger for re-evaluating what you’ve done these past few years, and perhaps even prompt a better description?


Leadership Stories

March 21, 2014

Whilst exploring my local library, I came across an interesting book by Gavin Esler ‘Lessons from the Top: How Successful Leaders Tell Stories to Get Ahead – and Stay There’ (published in 2012). Gavin Esler is a well-known presenter with Newsnight on BBC2. His journalistic experiences span over 30 years and through this he has interviewed a wide variety of influential people in politics, business and the arts.

At the end of the book (which I started with) he gives sixteen tips which he finds ‘striking and useful when considering successful leaders’ and which are applicable to everyone not just global stars.

Tip Two is:

Every leader tells a leadership story in three parts: ‘Who Am I?’ ‘Who Are We?’ and ‘What is our Common Purpose’ You must learn to answer the ‘Who Am I?’ question adequately, or the others do not matter.

And as an aid to doing the above, he gives Tip Three:

Remember the Earwig. All successful leaders create their own memorable way of answering the ‘Who Am I?’ bit of the leadership story succinctly. Think of it as the headline you would like to see attached to your name, or the epitaph that would fit on your tombstone.

The ‘Earwig’ he mentions is the story you can’t get out of your head and so won’t forget.

After reading this I thought about the leadership-type talks I’d been to recently and none seemed to resonate with Tip Two (at least as far as I can recall). There was often talk of the latter two parts ‘Who Are We?’ and ‘What is our Common Purpose?’ but little of the (more difficult) ‘Who Am I?’.

The ‘Who Am I?’ is presumably intended to build up the trust and confidence that is the bedrock for what follows. That’s a pretty tough task to pull off well, particularly with a cynical or demanding audience eg a company or organisation going through difficult times. There’s also the opposite problem, that it may in fact come over as quite believable but is in fact fundamentally false and contrived.

Anyway, it’s an interesting point of view and an important topic so I’ll write more on his thoughts later.


Cultivating Innovation And Deciding What To Fund

March 6, 2014

nesta-spending-2012-13

Chart of Nesta spend from their Annual Report 2012-13

I spent over 15 years of my career involved with bids, ranging from the small to the very large. They were all in the hi-tech area and focused on innovative solutions to a wide variety of business problems. Sometimes they involved bids for internal funding, to develop a new product idea, but more usually for external project funding (and usually in alliance with other parties).

Over this period I had experience from both sides of the fence: reviewing bids and giving feedback and submitting bids and receiving feedback. It’s a tricky area to get right: not to waste time on putting together a bid that will not get anywhere (for a host of reasons, which are often only clear afterwards, if at all) to the opposite, of being clear as why you’ve (really) won over other competing bids.

In the light of this I was interested to read about the approaches the charity Nesta are taking in cultivating innovative approaches in the areas that they focus on, including social innovation.

Nesta is a very interesting organisation and more info on them and their projects can be found from their site. In summary (here):

Nesta (formerly NESTA, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) is an independent charity that works to increase the innovation capacity of the UK.

The organisation acts through a combination of practical programmes, investment, policy and research, and the formation of partnerships to promote innovation across a broad range of sectors.

Nesta was originally funded by a £250 million endowment from the UK National Lottery. The endowment is now kept in trust, and Nesta uses the interest from the trust to meet its charitable objects and to fund and support its projects.

The key points so far are (with some extracts, see here for details):

1. Ideas matter, teams matter more

We’ve tried different approaches. Pitching sessions are useful, but you need to allocate enough time to get beyond the pitch and have a conversation; and one conversation is never really enough.

2. Information has a cost

One technique that seems to work is conference calls where we answer questions and clarify our goals before we ask teams to tell us their proposals.

3. Every contact should aim to add value

Often that’s about designing the selection process in a way that increases the knowledge or skills of the teams applying. We’ve held workshops on how to prototype and test ideas, connected people with coaches and experts, and supported teams to develop their theory of change.

4. Reach out for different perspectives

We haven’t found a simplistic formula that we can apply to our selection processes (if you know of one, please get in touch). What we do know is that we get much better decisions when we seek out different perspectives.

5. Expect iteration, know when to walk away

Sometimes the right thing to do is walk away; never easy after you’ve invested not only money, but your time and reputation into an innovation.


Navigating Without A Map

January 31, 2014

“Here’s the truth you have to wrestle with: the reason that art (writing, engaging, leading, all of it) is valuable is precisely why I can’t tell you how to do it. If there were a map, there’d be no art, because art is the act of navigating without a map. Don’t you hate that? I love that there’s no map.” – Seth Godin

Useful to bear this in mind when reading business books and articles. Beware of looking for a map that doesn’t exist!

There are some interesting additional comments on the map metaphor here (no map is perfect but neither are we).


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