education caught in a time loop?

June 21, 2008 at 4:52 pm | Posted in Professional Development | 5 Comments
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Watched an interesting talk from Ken Robinson where he challenges modern thinking on education.  Given my background in coaching, I have a fair amount of experience with the educational system.  And a little known fact of no value is that all I have left is my Student Teaching class to get my Masters in Arts and Teaching (but pesky bills get in the way of taking off 1/2 a year).

That said, I have to say that in general, I agree with Ken’s challenging of our current system.  What I’m not clear on is the alternative.  What is the best way to educate in the modern era?  Those folks we educate are going to run our businesses and our companies in the not-too-distant future, so it’s an important question to ask.

What about at work?  Do we appreciate those who think differently?  *should* we appreciate them?  I suspect for every story of the one that succeeds are thousands of the ones that really were hair-brained schemes.  But man oh man, when that one does hit, it can revolutionize things.  How to get there… that’s the challenge.  Sometimes we become victims of our own success in the sense we become beholden to what got us there.  It’s a tough challenge, and one I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.


leveraging those who see things differently than you

June 18, 2008 at 12:29 am | Posted in Business, Professional Development | Leave a comment
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A couple of years ago I was doing an exercise at work where we were going through a fictitious acquisition of a small company. We were given the company details and asked to make a first-line recommendation on an offer. My immediate response was, “What’s the guy like?” Another colleague asked, “Why?” and then an interesting conversation ensued.

For me, knowing the guy was really important because I tend to work primarily off relationships. My colleague said, “I actually don’t want to know because it clouds my judgment. I want to just look at the data.” Which way is right? Neither. And both. I think taking just one approach isn’t going to give you the full picture because you will inevitably have blind spots. It’s important to surround yourself with folks whom you respect, but who have ways of approaching problems that are different from your own.

The best leaders (in business and sports) seem to have a knack for surrounding themselves with perfect compliments. The trade off is that you won’t always reach consensus as quickly as you’d like, which can sometimes be frustrating. But that pales in comparison to the benefits of having a strong compliment of talent around you who can see things from all angles.

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going “backwards” when you’re deep in the playoffs

June 17, 2008 at 12:02 am | Posted in Business, Professional Development | Leave a comment
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A recent comment on one of my posts got me thinking about an old lesson I learned many years ago…

If you make it to the championship in high school football, from the time the first practice started, you’ve likely been at it for 18-20 weeks straight . Each week you advance in the post season, it gets very tempting to add more and more new stuff for the next opponent. If you’re not careful, you can soon outcoach yourself. Putting in too many new things, chasing that next magic play, or tweaking your schemes beyond your fundamental core abilities are all traps to watch out for.

What I learned from an old coaching mentor of mine was: “When you get deep in the playoffs, take a day and go backwards. Go back to the basics.” He was advocating running a practice like it was the first week of the season. Focus on the fundamentals. Get the intensity back. Return to the vision and hunger you had when the season started. I was amazed at how well it worked for us coaches and for the players.

I think we can do the same in business. As our companies mature, and markets get tough, and innovation is required, and growth gets more challenging, and we’re always pushing the envelope… that may be a good time to take a few days to go back to our basics–whatever they may be. Am I doing all of the little things right? Am I following a cohesive vision? Am I letting others know, clearly, what we need to do to succeed? Am I doing the things I would train another to do if they took my role?

It is so easy for me to stray from the little things that I know make a difference. Revisiting them every so often is a way to make sure I don’t stray too far.

15 min of fame … or infamy

June 15, 2008 at 4:23 pm | Posted in Professional Development | 2 Comments
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In a recent comment, the scrappy email marketer was summarizing an “email insider” panel discussion and said:

Specifically, they [panel members] don’t want their boss and others in the professional world seeing their personal profile on Facebook.

Nice wish, but thus far anyway, it’s proving to be difficult to attain in reality. First, as noted here, the “old timers” are moving into the realm of the “younglings” when it comes to college admissions. Moreover, once in college, some students have been punished or expelled due to their social networking activities. Yet even though it’s been going on for a while (here’s a case over two years old), some folks still don’t think about just how public their social networks can become. Last year I talked to two college coaches who said they passed on kids for full athletic scholarships because they saw severe attitude problems on their social networks.

Adults find themselves in the same boat sometimes. Remember this story of the mayor who was asked to resign because of her pictures she posted on MySpace? So it’s not limited to kids.

I can remember when my players would ask me about getting a tattoo, or gold tooth, or something that might carry a negative image to some. I would tell them that they need to be true to themselves, but also needed to understand that people’s perceptions are hard to control and they may have to deal with some negative ones. I wasn’t telling them not to; rather, I was just trying to prepare them for reality.

So, the controversy continues. Stay out of my space (or my facebook!) when it comes to personal online activity? … or … Don’t post stupid things on your pages that you don’t want your employer (or fellow workers) to see? I imagine there’s a wide spectrum of passionate feelings on this one. Wherever one lands on the issue, I at least think it’s very important to think about as social networking becomes more and more mainstream.

nothing but the facts

June 13, 2008 at 10:38 pm | Posted in Professional Development | 3 Comments

I have three young girls and trying to teach them to think critically is proving one of the more formidable challenges I face as a parent. Our society (and our own house, for that matter) is loaded with more facts than ever. Data points. Isolated bits of information coming via the Internet, books, TV, radio, you name it.

To gain knowledge, we need to put facts together in a meaningful way that is useful. And that is good. But my ultimate goal is for my girls to become *wise*, and wisdom is the *appropriate* use of knowledge toward a more noble end. I suppose we could debate a lifetime over what is “appropriate” and “noble” but I think you see my larger point here.

Are we becoming so inundated with facts that we have less and less knowledge? Is that leading to a decline in critical thinking? Is wisdom becoming a lost treasure in our businesses and personal lives? It seems some wisdom is only achieved through time and experience. I hope we don’t lose sight of that and “dismiss” older generations too soon from our circles of influence. That’s one thing I love about coaching. You’d be amazed how many retired coaches stay busy taking questions from young folks just getting their start. It’s a great thing.

I hope in technology we don’t exclusively pursue the fool’s gold of raw facts in exchange for the true riches of wisdom.

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the role of *people* in an acquisition

June 12, 2008 at 10:48 am | Posted in Business, Professional Development | 7 Comments

Mike made the following comment on my post about technical challenges to organic growth:

I think some folks are concerned about acquisitions because, when they sometimes fail, they draw so much negative attention to the company that it makes a bad impression on the whole process. A good CEO and management team can successfully integrate a piece of technology without toppling the whole house of cards.

I agree, and  Mike’s comment about “toppling the house of cards” got me started on a bit of a tangent thought.  The longer I’m in business, the more I realize how much of it is about PEOPLE.

First, there are the people who did the acquisition. No matter how much diligence you do, no matter how thorough the integration plan, some will simply not work as intended. Then what?  Will finger-pointing ensue? Will terminations be demanded? Will that consensus that was built fall by the wayside? That, to me, will test the metal of the company and the character of the its leaders.  Will folks be sacrificed as the scapegoat?  Will they be beaten (psychologically) into a shell?  Or will they be encouraged to learn, grow, and do better the next time?

Second, there are the people being acquired. I think the most common weakness in diligence processes is the assessment of personalities of the target company and the integration plan for them, as PEOPLE, into the new company.  It is a very difficult thing to manage, especially when you’re so focused on the pure “spreadsheet” aspect of the deal.  It can make or break a deal resulting in an awful lot of money being made or lost, so it’s worth the extra effort.

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organic growth: the business challenges

June 11, 2008 at 12:58 pm | Posted in Business, Technology Trends | Leave a comment

In addition to technical challenges of organic growth, there are also a substantial number of business challenges to growing organically as well. Let’s look at a few of the more common ones.

New projects often require new headcount. That means more expense, which is going to eat into your margins. How are you going to justify that? Usually, the justification is something like “We’re going to do $2M in year one.” Uh huh. I’m amazed at how little work is done on the back end to map target numbers to reality. Doing diligence to map that number back to real sales will expose other problems you may encounter. Here are eight very basic questions to ask yourself when you get started looking at an organic project:

    • Who will carry the quota? If you can’t map it to real people with real quotas, your chances of success are reduced immediately.
    • Does the market need educated? Where is the marketing budget going to come from to do this?
    • Are we going to hit international markets right out of the gate? Which ones? Localization required?
    • What will it do to support costs? What’s the estimated case load? Is it 24×7 critical?
    • What were the sales in the first year of the most successful product in your company’s history, and how does that compare to your estimates of the new product? Too often we look at mature products and say, “it’ll be like that one” without realizing how hard it was to get that product moving in the first year or two.
    • What is the sales cycle going to be? Critical for evaluating “success” as you move through the early months after GA. You may want to jump the gun and call something a failure in the first quarter, but perhaps the sales cycles are closer to 120 days.
    • What’s the plan for the dev teams to handle bugs and maintenance after the first release? This is a huge problem that requires a post all it’s own.
    • Are you counting on sales coming from a bundle? Meaning, are you simply going to attach this new product to your star and let it ride its coattails? (That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but just be sure to call it out for what it really is so you can make clear expense decisions.)

      Organic growth can be great, but it is also wrought with challenges, especially when lots of attention is being focused on your already successful product lines.

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      organic growth: the technical challenge

      June 10, 2008 at 5:07 pm | Posted in Business, Technology Trends | 8 Comments

      Ever checked the prices on organic groceries? Pretty pricey. Turns out that to grow stuff organically isn’t nearly as cost effective as using non-organic means. To me, a non-farmer, that initially didn’t sound right. I thought what could be more cost effective, than taking the bare minimal approach to growing stuff. Turns out I was wrong for lots of reasons and the bottom line is that mass producing food organically can be quite expensive, indeed.

      Technology isn’t all that different, especially for an established company. As I discussed earlier, I used to wonder why anyone would go through the cost of an acquisition when you could develop the same product organically for what seemed to be a fraction of the cost. And nobody fortifies that thinking like developers! Ask your development teams about an acquisition and they will typically tell you they can do it for 10x less the cost, with a team of dedicated developers internally, and deliver within an extremely reasonable time frame!

      Trouble is, they are almost always wrong, and they typically greatly underestimate the effort. Costs rise, delivery dates are pushed, features dropped, over-engineering ensues, scope-creep dominates, and a year and a half into the six-month project, everyone is wondering if the thing should just be canceled. I know that’s being a bit harsh on developers, but remember, I WAS ONE! It’s not necessarily that the developers are incompetent but there are many other factors at play. Here are a few that top the list that I see over and over when it comes to trying to develop a product similar to one that exists in the market instead of acquiring it:

      1) A single, zealot, charismatic developer (or manager) over commits on behalf of the whole dev team

      2) Poor due diligence on what’s really there that they are going to try and build

      3) Not understanding the “heart and soul” of the product that made it successful in the market

      4) Not accounting for the breath of the product, usually in terms of platform support

      5) Over-engineering a product in an attempt to better the one already in the market, and spending an inordinate amount of time on features that the masses do not want or need

      The amount of work required to make the decision to build something organically is often an order of magnitude more than folks realize. There are many trap doors waiting for you, any one of which can absolutely derail the effort. Make sure your eyes are as wide open as possible and push your discernment to its limit before deciding to organically build something that’s already in the market as opposed to acquiring. It can be done successfully, but that usually only happens when a company completely understands the entire strategy and then plans and implements accordingly.

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      when strengths become weaknesses

      June 9, 2008 at 8:03 pm | Posted in Professional Development | 2 Comments

      I had a comment asking me to expound on something I wrote here, which is that a person’s weaknesses are often their strengths taken to an extreme. I have had direct experience with this maxim on both sides of the coin: finding out it was true in me personally, and having to deal with it in other people.

      About eight years ago I had a cousin who cared about me enough to tell me: “Hey, you know what? You’re really, really mean.  Seriously.” He told me that my competitive personality was turning me into a jerk because I had to win at everything, all the time, and humiliate others as much as possible in the process.  But oddly enough, most of the compliments and praise I received at work were along the lines of “Takes charge naturally. Not afraid to take on difficult challenges. Extremely driven to succeed.” Because I was hearing those compliments and succeeding at work, I had never thought about toning them down.  Those things were my strengths, but they were taken to an extreme that made them weaknesses in interpersonal relationships.  Eventually that would have caught up with me in my professional life as I tried to advance my career.  I guarantee it.

      The other place I’ve experienced this was in coaching high school kids. I saw a lot of the personality aspect I describe above, but it goes even deeper than that (or shallower, depending on how you look at it). I was just talking the other day about a former running back I had who was an extremely tough kid. He never went down easily. He was a horse with the ball. But because of that toughness, he wouldn’t protect himself when he ran. He would run straight up and down which gives defenders some real kill shots on your knees and thighs. But because he was so tough, he never considered tweaking his style to help avoid some of those blows. His toughness, taken to an extreme, ultimately became his weakness as he suffered a season-ending broken leg his senior year.

      It takes a lot of self awareness to hear that your strength may also be a weakness.  But if you’re willing to work on it, your strengths will only get stronger and you can save yourself some pain along the way.

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      getting feedback — Part 4: Now what?

      June 6, 2008 at 9:06 pm | Posted in Professional Development | 3 Comments

      OK, so after trying every way possible to get quality feedback, it finally arrives. Now what?

      This is by far the hardest part. If the feedback was useful, then some of it was negative. I don’t mean just basic “man do you suck” negative. I mean negative in the sense that it gives you opportunity for improvement.

      If you’re like most people, you are not going to react well to hearing negative feedback. The most common reactions are defensiveness (no, you just don’t understand… here’s WHY I did that), anger (that idiot doesn’t know what he’s talking about), then resentment (Oh, so now he wants to be all nice to me?!), which is occasionally followed by pouting (I am going to just quit).

      That is a very natural, human reaction to something negative, especially when you’re not used to hearing it. Try to remember these five things as you process it.

      1) Time is your friend. Let it go for a while before you respond. Let your emotions run their course. A couple of days is all it takes. If you have to, write out your response to get it off your chest, but do NOT send it! Just stew on it for a couple of days.

      2) Don’t go it alone. Get help from someone you can trust to work through it with you.

      3) Don’t get someone who will just agree with you. Doing so only adds fuel to your own fire and isn’t going to help you in the long run. We all have — and need — people like this in our lives, but this occasion is one where you’d be better off without them.

      4) Do get someone who cares about you, but will be honest. This is often not a “friend” in the true sense of the word. Could be more of a professional acquaintance. And as I’ve said before, a peer to your boss is often a good choice if they know you well enough.

      5) You’re strengths can be your weaknesses. One reason why some people get defensive quickly is because the things for which they are being criticized are often the same things that they consider to be their strengths. An old pastor of mine once said, “A person’s weaknesses are often his strengths taken to an extreme.” This is very, very true of almost anyone. I learned this about myself several years ago and it has helped me tremendously. And t’s encouraging because it doesn’t mean you have to fundamentally change the channel; instead, you may just need to turn down the volume a bit!

      Keep a positive attitude as you go through review processes. It is so incredibly worth it in the long run.

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