Business & Leadership

Mar 04 0 Responses

How Not To Propose To Your Girlfriend

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life. – Steve Jobs

Imagine sitting at a small, intimate dinner table with the person you hope to spend the rest of your life with. The plates are being cleared; your hands brush. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. Just as the sun slips behind the horizon, you reach into your pocket and pull out the spreadsheet you’ve prepared, analyzing the current state of your relationship.

As ridiculous as this sounds, organizations do this every day. From who we’re going to marry to where we’re going to live, gut and intuition play an enormous role in all of life’s major decisions. Yet, we’ve programmed our corporate decision makers to cower behind numbers and kneel at the altar of data.

 A Hunch is More Than a Hunch
The trouble with this is the very best decision makers, those known for their shrewd business sense and ability to predict future trends, are constantly sending their companies in logic defying directions. They often attribute these decisions to nothing more than “gut”, “intuition”, or “a hunch”.

In actuality, these gut reactions are the result of thousands of hours of subconsciously processed information. Our brains are drawing on patterns we can’t articulate and making connections we can’t explain. It’s this ability that allows a chess master to look at a board and instantly determine which, of over 50,000 possible configurations, is currently in play, and instinctively know where to move his piece[1].

Every time we make a decision, our brains are cross-indexing related information from similar situations. What looks on the outside, and may even feel on the inside, like intuition is actually a calculated response based on a deep understanding of the factors involved. Whether you realize it or not, you are applying a mental model to a specific situation. This model constantly changes and evolves as knowledge and expertise increase.

Decide Fast
The entire knowledge of human history is doubling every single year[2], meaning business models change overnight, and business plans are outdated before the ink is dry on the proposal. The cost of waiting until you have obtained all the data points is an obsolete decision.

Decisions have to be made quickly and tweaked constantly. The rapid pace of technology has moved us to a point where we have to make a call well before all the facts are in. This fluidity in decision making requires a great deal of self-awareness. This self-awareness, combined with the brain’s ability to draw on previous experiences, places you in the perfect position to determine the best path forward.

Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours
Intuitive decision making is the end result of our experiences, and it stands to reason decision-makers who have passed that 10,000 hour threshold, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, would be better at making decisions. This means the only way to make better gut decisions is to expose yourself to making more decisions. Being aware of and okay with making these decisions before all the facts are in will strengthen your ability to do so in the future.

One of the key ingredients of effective leadership is the ability to give an opinion, come to an agreement, or settle a dispute without full knowledge of a particular situation. Ralph Larson, the former CEO of Johnson and Johnson put it this way, “Very often, people will do a brilliant job up through middle management, where it’s heavily quantitative in terms of decision making. But then, they reach senior management, where the problems are more ambiguous, and we discover their intuition is not what it should be. And when that happens, it’s a problem. It’s a BIG problem.”

Know Thy Business. Know Thyself.
Acquiring more knowledge and gaining more experiences are the only way your brain can begin to make those cross-references. Trusting your gut is something that many of us have to learn to do. It’s easy to fall back on data, and we won’t be questioned if we point to numbers. But no one ever said, “Fortune favors the number cruncher.”

You’ll know a lot more about how someone will fit on your team from a long conversation than you could ever glean from a resume. Resumes don’t show intangibles. They can’t predict tenacity, adaptability, or curiosity.

Bold, unconventional decisions turn also-ran companies into market leaders. Motorola put a phone that analysts said would never be more than a novelty into production, and the RAZR is still the best selling clam-style cell phone of all time. Chrysler changed their entire public perception by going against industry experts’ advice and put a V10 engine in a sports car called the Dodge Viper. Microsoft’s former CEO, Steve Ballmer, famously laughed at the launch of Apple’s iPhone, describing it as “the most expensive phone in the world.” Less than a year later, it was also the best selling phone in the world.

When a deal just feels right, sign it. When you can’t put your finger on why a particular candidate seems like the right person for the job, but you just know they are, hire them. You can take solace in the fact that your decision wasn’t just a hunch, or a gut feeling, or some form of intuition; it was based on thousands of hours spent in hundreds of situations. It comes from your brain cross-referencing millions of data points that have been subconsciously wired together.

All so you can tell someone when asked why you did what you did, “I don’t know, I just trust my gut.”

1 Gardner, Howard. “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligence” 1993
2 Buckminster Fuller, R. “Critical Path” 1981

Jul 23 0 Responses

The 3 Most Important Steps You Can Take To Be Awesome At Your Job

Can you imagine anything less human than the inner-workings of a pocket watch? The gears grind with a sole purpose, and the hands tick with precision. There is no wasted motion, no need to adapt. There is only efficiency.

They’re very good at doing exactly what they’re supposed to do, and often, people think if they come in and act like that watch, they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to do.

But our value as humans does not come from mimicking machines. Our value comes from doing things uniquely human. It comes from seeing a problem and thinking differently. It comes from analyzing situations and creating opportunities.

We cannot view ourselves as some cog in a corporate wheel. We have to be engaged. We have to have our heads up, and we have to be looking for opportunities.

Step 1: Grow

Take responsibility for your career. You have to be constantly learning. The very best employees, the most engaged employees, are the ones who are proactively figuring out ways to be better. You should have an answer for, “What have you done in the last 6 months to be better at doing what you do?”

The power of 1%
Power of 1%In 2009 Alfred Lin, then COO of Zappos, sent a letter to his employees talking about the power of 1%. In it, he explained if you could improve by just 1% every single day, this time next year, you would be 37 times better than you are right now.

It is a simple illustration, but it absolutely shows the power of growth.

Step 2: Treat The Company Like It’s Yours

We’d all be better off if we acted a bit more like an unfunded startup and bit less like some VC just gave us $100 million to blow. Be selfless when assessing need vs. want. Question purchases, and ask why something useful is getting thrown out.

It’s so easy to think of your company as an entity sending you checks every two weeks, but company growth is a collective effort. I’m not saying invite friends over to your house for a sales pitch thinly disguised as a party, but if you believe your company offers a high quality product or fills some real need in the marketplace, keep your ears open for opportunities.

Step 3: Be Happy

No one is going to be rainbows and unicorns every day, but we can all bring positivity every day. Take care of your co-workers. Celebrate their successes, and learn from their failures. Be looking for reasons to give credit as opposed to reasons to criticize.

Great co-workers will push you to be who you are, to be the best at what you do. That’s what engagement is all about. And if that is a little too fluffy for you, I’ll leave you with this:

According to Gallup’s really long and somewhat dry PDF, companies with engaged employees are 16% more profitable, 18% more productive, have 12% more loyal customers, and produce 60% higher quality products than those with disengaged employees.

Engagement is not a fluffy concept. It’s not the icing on the cake; it’s the flour in the batter. You want to be awesome at your job? Get engaged.

If you found this article useful, please share it:

Jul 01 0 Responses

Learning Is The Key To Leadership

How can someone with the powerful title, the right look, and the impressive background, never actually inspire a soul?

It’s because leadership has never been about authority or power. Leadership comes from your social influence, and your ability to use that influence to get maximum productivity out of others. Leadership is getting your team to follow you into hell wearing gasoline suits – and being excited about it.

Earning Social Influence

The right question is never, “Why isn’t someone following me?” It’s, “What reasons have I given someone to want to follow me?” If you aren’t learning and growing, you can’t reasonably expect someone to think of you as a leader. A leader is at the front. They’re progressive. They’re innovative. They’re continuously learning.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of learning by chance or learning on the job, but that’s only good enough if you want to almost lead. To make the transition from almost a leader to actually a leader, learning has to be intentional to the point of becoming who you are as a person.

And if all that sounds like a lot of work, it is. The pic at the top of this blog post is not some random image of books found on the web, it’s my next 6 months of free time. So yeah, it’s hard, but if you love the challenge of getting the most out of others, it’s absolutely worth it.

Dec 12 0 Responses

Starting A Startup

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. – Mark Twain

There are a lot of people out there giving advice on how you can start your business. I’m not smart enough to be giving advice though so I’ll just tell you how I went about starting a startup.

The short version is Fun Panda was founded because I couldn’t find a customizable bamboo case for my iPad. The longer version is:

The Idea
Coming up with an idea is easy; implementing an idea is difficult. In fact, frustrated with my inability to get any ideas to take off, I started a company called MilliSeed with a tag line of “A million ideas; a thousand beginnings.” Will Fun Panda be different? To be honest, I don’t know, but I have learned a lot from a half a dozen failed businesses over a dozen years.

A big difference this time is it’s not just an idea. This is a frustration turned business plan. I’ve sat around with groups of brilliant people throwing concepts up on the wall. In those cases, we were trying to find a niche or create a market. In this case, the market already exists. There are large market segments for customized iPad cases and environmentally responsible product. There just wasn’t an existing solution for customizable responsible iPad cases.

The Market
The reason most of my earlier businesses failed is people didn’t want what I was selling. Sure, there was money to be made, and others with similar businesses were able to succeed where I didn’t. Maybe the ideas were too soon (search engine optimization in the late 90s, green lawn care in the mid 2000s). Maybe they were too late (baseball card inventory management long after most people stopped collecting). There are plenty of excuses, but the bottom line is that if more people were buying what I was selling those businesses would have been successful.

This time around, I have a much firmer grasp of the market and the opportunity. My living room is littered with print outs of projections, trends, and market analysis.

The Team
I learned my lesson several years ago when I partnered with a couple of guys to create grassroots organization software for political movements. I didn’t know these guys particularly well, and two months later, one of them was 1,000 miles away, not answering his phone, and holding all the vital info to run the business.

This time around, I wanted to work with friends. I interview a lot of people in my “real” job, and I’ve learned being friends with someone, even for a short period of time, will tell you more about a person than you will ever learn in an interview.

My checklist for partnering:

  • A Friend
  • Smart
  • Gets Stuff Done
  • Could stand to hang around for hours on end

There is always the possibility of going it alone, but for me, I’ve done that. You have the weight of the world on your shoulders, and when things don’t go according to plan, there’s no one there to hold you accountable, pick you up, or not allow you to quit. This time around, going it alone wasn’t an option.

The Money
Everyone I told about the customizable bamboo cases loved the idea, and when they saw the samples, the responses were amplified. This made for an odd problem – too many people wanted to invest. I followed the partner checklist above and found a couple of people who could help off-set some of the start-up costs.

This will become a new rule of thumb for me for future business ideas. If people aren’t fighting each other to invest in your business, it’s probably not a very good idea.

The Future
While I’ve made a couple of personal loans to the business, I also know where my bread is buttered. I have a great job that I love very much. I’m not going to go into debt to grow Fun Panda, but I’m also not going to be taking money out of the company. For now, invest and reinvest in the company, work hard at night and on the weekends, and see if we can’t grow this thing into something great.

In the end, no one knows exactly why anything works. Groupon was an accident.  HP turned down the personal computer idea 5 times before Steve Wozniak partnered with Steve Jobs to found Apple. For now, it’s a really fun project with a lot of potential.

If you’re looking for an iPhone or iPad case, check us out.

Oct 14 0 Responses

Two Easy Steps To Deliver Projects Quicker

If you want to make an easy job seem mighty hard, just keep putting off doing it. – Olin Miller

Here’s a quick heads up. That six month project you just started – it’s going to take you seven months. If you’re clever and scheduled it for seven months – it’s going to take you eight. After spending my entire adult life sitting through one hour meetings that should have lasted 15 minutes, I am more confident than ever in Parkinson’s law.

If you’re not familiar with Parkinson, his law basically states, ‘work expands to fill the time available for completion.’ My addendum would be, “Plus 10%” – people tend to over-estimate their skills and under-estimate complexity.

Short Timeframes
If an atom, which literally means indivisible in Latin, can be divided; you can figure out how to divide your project too. Breaking a small piece off your project and setting a due date in the near future is the best way to push forward. If you can procrastinate and get it done; the timeframe isn’t short enough. This will create enough pressure to maximize productivity without limiting your ability to engage resources or be creative.

Concrete Deliverables
You’re much more likely to lose two pounds this week than your are to lose some weight. What is some weight? It’s an undefined deliverable that can be rationalized away. “I ate a bigger than usual lunch.” “I just drank a lot of water.” Wrong. You’re fat. Go for a jog. Concrete deliverables are defined and measurable. They make sure you are solving the right problem and not getting caught up in distractions.

Continuously moving forward (short timeframes) and in the right direction (concrete deliverables) makes big projects small and over time will make small paychecks big.

Apr 07 0 Responses

Building a Productive Millennial Workforce

Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly, and they will show themselves great. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Perhaps the most talented generation of employees, the Millennials, are entering the workforce. They are trying to figure out where your company fits in their lives. Not where they fit in your company. Engaging this generation in a way that understands that mindset while still maximizing their potential is one of the biggest competitive advantages in the market today.

Millennials grew up in a world where contributions were more important than credentials. When they upload a video to YouTube or post their latest blog no one is asking what film school they attended or where they received their journalism degree. Creating an environment of meritocracy resonates. If you truly listen, trust and loyalty follow – and from a group that grew up in a world of globalization, outsourcing, and corporate bankruptcies that’s significant.

This group has received more respect from their parent’s and teachers than any generation, and the quickest way to get them to shut down is to talk down to them. On the flip though, the best way to engage them is to really get to know them. Know their names, the projects they’re working on, and spend enough time with them on a regular basis to set them up for success. Set clear boundaries and a structure that the employee can have autonomy in. Avoid generic advice. Give something that is concrete and actionable. They need to understand we’re all on the same team, and we’re working toward a particular goal together.

There is nothing more exciting/nerve-wracking than the first day on a new job. New hires walk in on fire, and you’re either going to throw water or gasoline on the spark. Millennials want to hit the ground running. Sticking them in an office and paying them to fill out forms and wait on things is a fast way to turn a good hire bad. They will feel you are wasting their time. You also don’t want to be put in a sink or swim situation either. Day 1 should be about connecting them to your mission. Make them feel like they belong, and build the foundation for continuous learning. A good hire will respect what you bring to the table, and they want you to respect what they bring to the table. Give them work they’re fired up to do, and have someone take the time to train them.

Millennials are more than just the latest generation entering the workforce; they are the future of your company. Part of setting them up to succeed is teaching them:
• how to shine in presentations and meetings
• how to deal with big shots.
• the basics of customer service. One of our first growing employee assignments is to have them read a great book on customer service called, Customer Satisfaction is Worthless.
• show them how to set priorities and eliminate time wasters
• even how to use a checklist.

You’ll need to understand how to communicate with them, and show them how to take control of their destiny. Be that allowing them to develop their own learning plan or showing them how to rack up points in your company’s points banking system.

Millennials may be the most high maintenance workforce in history, but if managed correctly, they will also be the most high performance workforce in history. The juice is definitely worth the squeeze.

Feb 21 1 Response

Too Lazy To Be Famous

To be occasionally quoted is the only fame I care for. – Alexander Smith

Sure I would like to be famous. Who wouldn’t want to get an invite to speak at TED on managing millennials or modern project management. Walking around the conference where everyone knows your name and wants to buy your drink – that’s the pinnacle of career success. At least it seemed like a good goal to put up on my Oprah® approved Secret* vision board.

So I dug in and read all the big blogs and books on personal branding. I was even tricked into reading Dan Schawbel’s rambling, self-serving, never get those three hours of my life back, take on the subject*. (Book Review Here)

About half way through my research, I was prepared to spend countless hours adding to my twitter followers and blogging every day. All I had to do, according to pretty much every expert in the field, was to start telling a lot of people I’m famous. It was self-help 101, you become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s right; that’s the secret: you tell enough people that you’re famous and you become famous.

As it turns out, it’s also quite a bit of work: find, follow, tweet – find, follow, tweet – find, follow, tweet. Comment on popular blogs and link back to your site (even if you don’t care about the content). Get out and be seen at the conferences and shows. That’s just too much work doing nothing.

I’m too lazy to be famous. I guess I’ll just have to stick to trying to be better at my actual job.

*These are hyperlinked ironically. You shouldn’t actually buy these books. They’re horrible.

Apr 28 0 Responses

Hey Look, It’s Stress! Managing the Unmanageable Workload

“Where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise.” – Thomas Gray

I’m starting to feel for Atlas. Sure, he was condemned to bear the heavens upon his shoulders, and I’m just trying to manage an IT workload. But the crushing feeling of no end in sight has to make us brothers in arms.

I’m quickly learning, there is no silver bullet in project management. Putting processes in place does not fix problems; it exposes them. If there is more work than workers, you’re going to fall behind. If you’re working on projects that are not fun to work on, there are no methodologies to fix boring.
However, leaving the lights off and ignoring the cockroaches running across the floor is not an option. Managers have to deal with the infestation. That is what we get paid to do.

Implementing Lean processes have exposed problems in our organizational structure and weaknesses in dealing with departments throughout our company. It would have been easy to blame the new system, and solve the problem by just getting rid of it. We could have just flipping the lights back off, but once you’ve seen the cockroaches, it’s tough to go back to business as usual.

It’s always hard to convince someone to implement anything that might lead to more work. Something that will make visible problems that no one even knew were problems.

There will be more stress and you’ll get some scars, but in the end, if you stick to your processes, your company will be better for it. And in times when we’re all trying to do more with less, you owe it to your team to deal with some stress if it can gain you some efficiency.

Feb 25 0 Responses

No Product No Value

“One thing completed is worth ten things on hold.” – Dianna Booher

Most of our jobs entail delivering some sort of a widget to a customer. Ideally, we would be able to work on one task at a time. Finish it, then move on to the next task. Unfortunately, very few of us feel we have the luxury to work in this manner.

In our world, we have any number of distractions from bug reports to feature requests that compete for our time. Too often, what gets lost in this mix of pleasing the customer is actually returning value to the customer. It seems obvious, but a customer cannot begin to see value until the product is delivered. Take the following example:

Development Cycle

Using single piece flow, you are delivering this set of features 8 days sooner:
Feature 1: 3.2 Days Sooner
Feature 2: 2.4 Days Sooner
Feature 3: 1.6 Days Sooner
Feature 4: 0.8 Days Sooner
Feature 5: Delivered at the same time.

Not only are you delivering your most important feature (presumably the one delivering the most value) three days sooner, you are not delivering any feature later. Overall, the Single Piece Flow yields a 32% increase on a company’s ROI. – if you’re interested in the math, feel free to shoot me an email.

An easy shot to take at the above methodology would be to criticize the efficiency in the hypothetical. Obviously, no shop is 100% efficient. In fact, most research points to a shop running anywhere north of 80% as pretty streamlined. That being said, there would be common waste among both project management techniques. In a single piece flow environment however, you are not nearly as exposed to four wastes that Lean methodologies warn against: Partially Done Work, Task Switching, Waiting, and Motion.

Depending on who you read, with three switches every day the multi-tasking team is losing an additional 10-25% of their efficiency.

Even using the most conservative numbers – 80% efficiency with multi-tasking only costing 10% – you’ll realize over 28% better numbers running tasks through one at a time. The math is pretty easy. If you can increase your company’s top line sales by getting billable features to customers quicker or reduce your costs by having less developers deliver the same work you’ll be in a much better position than you are today.

It’s simple: no product, no value. The quicker the product is delivered, the quicker value can be realized. Like Tom Demarco said, “There are a million ways to lose a work day, but not even a single way to get one back.”

Oct 25 0 Responses

Kanban Board for Lean Software Development

“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” – Ben Franklin

Lean software development was actually my introduction to agile through the Poppendiecks’ book, but we brought in an agile coach to refocus our teams on what it means to actually run a lean software shop.

So, as I often do, I dove headfirst into studying.  I read anything I could get my hands on even remotely related to the Toyota Production Systems (TPS) and quickly realized that while TPS concepts have been around since the 1930s (and lean principles much longer than that), lean software development is very much in the early stages of application.  There is really no consensus in the community as to how to run a project, but James Shore wrote a really good article that contained a sketch for a Kanban Planning Board. Below, I’ve modified it to incorporate a non time-boxed retrospective concept that was discussed on the Kanban Development Group and added a couple of team motivation concepts.

At the top of the board is the overall goal of the current project. Having this so prominent should help the developers not get so involved with the trees (Minimal Marketable Features) that they lose sight of the forest (the project).

Along the left hand side, you have the current MMF that the team is working on as well as the backlog. The order of this backlog can be changed at any time by the stakeholders (Corey Ladas has a great article on using perpetual multi-vote to schedule this queue).

In the middle, are the development tasks that are required to satisfy the current MMF as well as Work In Progress (WIP) and an area for Done tasks. James left off the second two areas, but project management is about managing people as much as it is managing projects. People like to mow their lawns because once it is done there is a psychological boost to look over and see what you’ve just  accomplished. In the same way, a “Done” area allows  the developers to see the grass they’ve mowed during the current MMF. In an environment where the team is local, you could do away with the WIP area as the developers would have the cards at their desk, and in a situation where a software based board was being used there could be a current MMF progress bar instead of the done area.

On the right hand side, there is an Urgent  box that allows for an MMF to skip the backlog and focus the developers on an emergency situation, and there is a retrospective queue. Rather than time-boxing retrospectives, this queue allows the retrospective to fit more naturally into a pull system.

While this board is my take on improving what I’ve seen out there, I have high hopes that Kaizen Conference  will help us as a community move to a more standardized approach to managing projects in a lean, efficient way. (update 2014: spoiler, the conference didn’t help out at all)

Kanban Board

1 2