Following a legend is hard — at apple or anywhere else

December 18, 2008 at 2:25 pm | Posted in Business | 1 Comment
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There’s a lot of talk lately about Steve Jobs. Here’s a representative post of many that I have seen lately. However Apple handles this, I think it’s nearly a no-win situation for the next person who is going to take over.

This is a huge problem in sports. Following a legendary coach is tough for several reasons:

1) If you succeed, it wasn’t really you… it was you just riding the coat tails of the guy before you.

2) If you don’t advance the organization, it’s all because of you and the guy before you would have certainly done better than what you produced.

3) Your comparisons to the legend will only get worse because his image will grow in lore over time.

4) In some cases, the legend hangs around in the shadows just enough to never quite let you step out of his shadow.

So what is Apple to do? It will be interesting to watch, but my bet is that they will go through a lull of sorts when Jobs decides to step down. For me, following a legend is a tough situation with very little upside. I’d rather step into a disaster and build it up or start afresh somewhere. But that is a personality thing. Someone will definitely be ready and willing to take over for Jobs. Will be interesting to watch when it happens.

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The “star” syndrome

December 12, 2008 at 1:27 pm | Posted in Business | 2 Comments
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Twice in my coaching career I had to deal with the “star syndrome”. The player that is so good that you find yourself looking the other way when it comes to his negatives, even if sometimes it means a bit of a double standard. That is a hard one for me, as it is for most coaches. There comes a point when you’ve got to make a call on these kids for the good of the team. The decision is agonizing.

I saw this recently not with sports, but with MySQL creator, Monty Widenius, when he publicly went on a rant about a recent decision to release a product. This was not his first action of this sort. Fact is, we find these people in all walks of life, both personally and professionally. They are extremely talented, passionate, brilliant, and often mean well, but their negatives can greatly bring down the infrastructure of a team or organization, especially depending on the maturity of the organization.

Jack Welch in his book Straight from the Gut talks about a quadrant approach he used to help clarify his thinking on this issue. (disclaimer: I listened to the audio book, but from what I heard, it looks pretty close to this:)

welch-diagram

In his years of experience, he talked about how even though the decision can be extremely painful in the short-term because of their results, he has rarely seen it end well when someone just doesn’t fit the corporate culture. The erosion happens in slow, subtle ways that are very difficult to recover from in the end.

I believe the tolerance for the “star syndrome” is directly related to the size and maturity of the organization. Complete speculation here, but I’m guessing Monty’s passion and style were a fantastic, if not utterly necessary, fit in the early days of MySQL. But over time, their mission changed and I’m talking even well before the Sun acquisition. They needed to make money, pure and simple, and that objective was somewhat at odds with their early mission statement and goals. Things changed as they grew but it appears Monty didn’t want to change.

Should Monty go? I don’t know. That’s up to him and his team. But I do know this: organizations are in constant change. Sometimes it’s evolution, sometimes it’s regression, but if you’re trying to build a true team, then cultural cohesion is paramount every step of the way. The problem is often that those who benefit from the star’s brilliance don’t ever see the wake of problems that others must deal with. Monty’s developers may love him passionately because of his talent, but can you imagine the trail of carnage left by this particular action and how it affects so many facets of the company? And this was just one we saw. I know of many others they’ve dealt with internally. That makes for a culture that absolutely undermines the building of a strong, long-term team.

when bad is good

October 31, 2008 at 7:42 am | Posted in Business, Professional Development | Leave a comment
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Pop Quiz.  You’re the manager over the following situation:

  • Objective: Maintain maximum number of product downloads.
  • History: Product downloads have increased 10% each month for the past year.
  • Action: Change methodology that has been in place for the past year and measure for 6 months.
  • Result: Downloads have decreased by 5% each month for the past six months.

Easy one, right?  Fire the person who ran that campaign!  But in the words of Lee Corso on College Gameday: “Not so fast, my friend.” The answer should be: “I don’t have near enough information.”

What if the result of continuing the current plan would have resulted in a 20% drop instead of 5%?  If that were the case, then although things got “worse” they were actually “better” than what could have been.  Ah, but now you’re dealing with “hypotheticals” as our presidential candidates have become fond of saying. But business is often about hypothetical situations and trying to maximize or mitigate them.

Before you make a risky change, you should do all you can to build consensus from folks after you explain the risks of doing nothing, and of making the change.  Even then, you’re likely to get some (or most) people pointing at the raw data and calling it a failure.  But part of your job should be to do everything you can to ensure that doesn’t happen.  It takes a lot of guts to do that because it’s easier to just do nothing, play it safe, and hope for the best.  But as it’s been said many times, “hope is not a plan.”  So be aggressive, but do it in a way that mitigates surprise reactions to raw data that you know may seem unflattering at first glance.

“bail outs” are vogue

October 31, 2008 at 7:40 am | Posted in Business | Leave a comment
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Looks like everyone is jumping on the bail out bandwagon.  Guess it’s just the thing to do these days.   I just thought this was an interesting use of words, and I’m sure quite intentional.

http://biz.yahoo.com/iw/081001/0439046.html

need help, go to someone who knows nothing

October 5, 2008 at 9:37 pm | Posted in Business, Professional Development | Leave a comment
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OK, so maybe not someone who knows absolutely nothing, but it may be a good time to connect with someone who has a fresh perspective on your problem. I was thinking about getting the best in the company, from multiple disciplines, into a room every so often to just think about problems. I think it would accomplish at least two things:

1) Makes you understand your problem well enough to explain it to someone who doesn’t know your particular field. That is always helpful.

2) They’re not jaded by any presuppositions in thinking about an answer.

Yeah, I’m sure some of the discussions will be eye-rolling fodder, but I think it would be a very interesting way to go about solving some tough market challenges. Oh, if we all only had 30 hours in a day, doing stuff like this would be no problem!

the wrong “right thing”

September 29, 2008 at 11:15 am | Posted in Business, Professional Development | 1 Comment
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How long do you fight the good fight, when you realize that things need to change, but that you are not going to be able to change them? When do you stop trying? How do you know success isn’t just one month away? How long do you fight to be an agent of change when you can’t control all the changes that are made? The bigger the company, and the lower you are on an org chart, the more interesting those questions become.

When I left coaching at Trinity, a top-25 nationally ranked school, I had a set of ideas on what was the “right” way to do things. And, I *was* right given my surroundings. When I went to CAL, a brand new program with 1/5th the players, it became quite a different story. I had to abandon what I knew was “right” at Trinity in lieu of what we could “execute” at CAL. We spent the first year crawling; spoon feeding them everything. We spent year 2 walking. In year 3 we started to jog, and in year 4&5 we were able to run. But it was a long process of education, building confidence, trust, and putting in things a little at a time.

I was just starting at CAL and meeting with an older coaching buddy of mine who had retired a few years back. I’m whizzing away on the board with the schemes and style I wanted to implement. He sat back and said, “Looks fantastic. Now put player names above the x’s and o’s.” So I did. Then he asked, “Can those names do what those lines are telling them to?” They couldn’t. That’s when I realized I needed to start by teaching them to crawl before we did anything else.

What’s “right” in theory can get screwed up really quickly when the reality doesn’t give you the tools you need. Maybe the most philosophically sophisticated saying of all applies here: “Don’t try and teach a pig to sing. You just frustrate yourself and irritate the pig.” Know your environment and adapt accordingly.

unity and diversity – part 2

September 23, 2008 at 3:10 pm | Posted in Business, Professional Development | Leave a comment
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Continuing on some earlier thoughts on trying to be diverse and maintain unity…

With college football now in full swing, I can’t help but turn to my beloved sport for yet another analogy.  Football, to me, is the greatest example in sports of unity and diversity.  One team, one objective, but many different sub-teams, each with their own unique battles, all working together for a win. I think it’s pretty clear why diversity is imperative to success.  Having one person try to run everything just doesn’t work in a fast moving game — or fast moving business for that matter.  You’ve got to trust the people you put in place to make good choices.

But what of unity?  Unity avoids anarchy, inefficiency, and unhealthy internal competition by getting all those parts moving toward a common direction.  When they *know* the common direction, it actually adds a ton of morale to the individual efforts.  I’m not a big fan of hidden objectives unless they are absolutely necessary.  So the head coach needs to inform, inspire, and evaluate each of the individual units to ensure the overall objectives are being met, then work with the position coaches to make the necessary changes.

This stuff sounds so easy, but it’s anything but.  Take it for granted and odds are you will end up with inefficiencies all over the place.  Moreover, internal competitions can shred morale.  Here again, I think we’re back to people.  Communication, cooperation, energy, passion, teamwork.  These are the things that are incredibly difficult to sustain at maximum levels.  Throw in a distributed team and it can get even more challenging.  But like most things that are difficult to do, the rewards are great.

unity and diversity

September 11, 2008 at 4:54 pm | Posted in Business | 2 Comments
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Being someone who takes a passionate (albeit EXTREMELY novice) interest in philosophy, I recognize that the relationship of unity and diversity is an age old philosophical question.  Science, too, with its search for a unifying theory wrestles engages it as well.  But one of the books I’m currently reading, D-Day by Stephen Ambrose, also has me thinking about it from a business perspective.

In one chapter, Ambrose juxtaposes two of the main leaders surrounding D-Day, Eisenhower and Rommel.  For all of the alleged “order” imposed by the Nazi’s, according to Ambrose, their command and control structure was one of “divide and rule”.  Hitler never wanted any of his commanders to be too powerful, or to have too much knowledge.  Conversely, it was stated the Eisenhower was given far more comprehensive control, which meant that he didn’t have to face many of the logistical and coordination challenges that Rommel did.  OK, made plenty of sense to me and seems rather intuitive.  Then I got to the part about how the Allied forces were planning the actual invasion.

At higher levels, the temptation to reach down to solve lower echelons’ problems was great, but it was overcome.  General de Guingand explained, “At first we tried to discover a school solution to the composition of the assault waves … but after the first training rehearsal we decided the notion of a single formula was nonsense and we let the particular assault section solve its own problem.” -p.108

So when given total control, Eisenhower and his team were smart enough to realize it was necessary to have independently running divisions making their own decisions based on their own challenges to achieve their own objectives.  In business, we face this strategical problem over and over and over again.  A lot to unpack here, but too much for a single post.  More later…

it’s not what you know… it’s what they know

August 29, 2008 at 1:16 pm | Posted in Business, Professional Development | Leave a comment
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There is a great temptation in coaching to come up with a dream playbook.  You sit for hours and hours and hours that turn into weeks that turn into months, pouring over the perfect strategies.  And in the end, you come up with some humdingers.  You put it all in the playbook, then you go to camp and intro to the kids.

The kids are talking about their girlfriends, classes, summer jobs, girlfriends, cards, and girlfriends.  And suddenly you realize that two weeks into practice, they haven’t mastered the first couple of pages. Sigh.

Over the years I started to realize I needed to spend more time figuring out what the kids could grasp versus what perfect strategies I could create.  I spent time thinking about where and why they struggle with learning certain things.  I spent a lot of time cutting and cutting and cutting anything that I didn’t think would help them win games within their physical and mental capabilities.

Just past this midyear mark, I’m starting to realize business is no different.  I need to spend more time figuring out what our teams can absorb, what they care about, why they care about it, and tailor as much strategy to fit their capabilities as possible.

video conferencing

August 27, 2008 at 2:44 pm | Posted in Technology Trends | Leave a comment
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Like most folks nowadays, we’re tightening up our travel expenses at my company, and heck, even in our own family for that matter!  So a week or so ago a few of us started talking about the need for an all-day meeting.  We just had too much to cover for a series of short meetings as we needed to really keep our train of thought going through a variety of related issues.

I currently use Skype for 1-on-1 calls, but today there were 3 of us and that presents a problem for Skype at the moment.  AFter some digging, I stumbled on a product called oovoo. It is free for up to three simultaneous users, then you can pay for up to 6 after that.  They have PC and Mac (beta) versions available.

The only issue we had today was audio feedback, which is more a fault of not using headsets than the application itself. So, we opted to dial into our conference call line for the audio, and just use the video.  Turns out the latency was minimal and it was a fantastic solution.  We had a 6 hour meeting that was far, far more productive than if we were just on the phone and we saved airfare, hotels, etc., in the process.

Oh, one other advantage… today we were all three in remote offices, i.e. not on the corporate network.  I do not think we would get passed firewalls if we were on the corporate network, which I know is a challenging issue for a lot of organizations right now.

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