A little bit of enthusiasm

A few of us met for brunch on Sunday to discuss an exciting new project. This was at a restaurant here in Evanston. We were soon ready to order. The conversation went like this –

Staff: “What would you like to have today?”
One of us: “I’d like the stuffed French pancakes”
Staff: “Ooooooooohhh. That is delicious. What about you?”
Next person: “I’d like the …..”
Staff: “Aaaaahhhhh. That is.. I mean, that is truly amazing. ..”

Every time we mentioned a dish, he’d give this genuine ‘ooh’ or ‘aah’ that made us all laugh. I had a few thoughts as we went through this exercise.

1. Ordering is normally an interruption when you have a new project to discuss. Somehow, he made it fun.
2. He really cared about the food they served. It just showed. There are few things that equal that feeling – it is so vital to a great dining experience.
3. All of his actions and behavior contributed to our happiness. Aren’t restaurants really in the happiness business?
4. And, finally, it made me feel grateful for all we had. It was snowing that day. And, here we were, seated in a warm and comfortable restaurant about to order a delicious meal and discuss an exciting new project that we had the privilege to work on. Life was good.

So many great lessons. All it took was a little bit of enthusiasm. A really nice meal.. but an even better life lesson.

Which discipline will you choose? – MBA Learnings

In a ground breaking book, “Discipline of the Market Makers,” Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema argued that  outstanding companies typically pick one of the following 3 disciplines to excel in – Operational Excellence, Product Leadership and Customer Intimacy.

Operational Excellence: Companies who seek to excel though Operational Excellence seek to have the lowest total cost compared to their competitors. Companies like Wal-Mart and Amazon exemplify this discipline.
Product Leadership:  Companies that seek to differentiate by product leadership are characterized by a leading-edge “must-have” product or service. Think Apple, Nike.
Customer Intimacy: Customer-intimate companies are those that define themselves as not just providing goods or services, but as helping their clients be successful. Think Ritz Carlton or Zappos.

Their research found that these companies centered themselves around one discipline. Companies that tried to do all of these inevitably didn’t do as well. It is a fascinating insight and has a couple of interesting implications –

1. Know why you choose a product/service. My wife and I stocked up on winter clothes at “The North Face.” The North Face is known for outstanding product quality and we’re very happy with our purchases. However, we had a horrible experience dealing with their customer service number. After a few days of useless back-and-forth, we finally got the issue sorted at the store. So, would we recommend The North Face to friends? Absolutely. We chose it because of a top quality product and they delivered. Just don’t expect it to be cheap or for their customer service to rival Zappos.

2. Prioritize spikes over smooth edges. We are often taught to be smooth, rounded personalities. What we need to do, however, is to consider prioritizing developing areas of serious strength. It is these spikes that enable us to create real impact and make a difference. We can’t all be great at everything. Pick what you’d like to be great at and do enough of the rest so they don’t obstruct progress. Prioritize spikes. Pick.

Uber created a media storm yesterday with their CEO’s response to an executive’s irresponsible behavior. The company’s attitude shouldn’t be all that surprising. Uber, as a company, have clearly distanced themselves from the idea of customer intimacy with their actions. Their Product Leadership edge is questionable. It remains to be seen if they can succeed in their quest to build an outstanding company by continuing to excel in their operations while not letting their inadequate treatment of customers impede their progress. Time will tell.

The 3 procrastination killers

1. Clarity – Why do we need to do this? How must it be done? What must be done next? Clarity of why, how, and what takes some time and thinking. But, once we know, there are few things that can stop us.

2. Momentum – It isn’t always easy to get the necessary amount of clarity before we get started. So, the other approach is to start by checking small items of a task list so we build the “getting-things-done” momentum. Like all hacks, this comes with an note of caution – the procrastination forces can use it against us. We can find ourselves spending absurd amounts of times doing unimportant stuff under the pretext of building momentum. Use it with care.

3. Willpower – If all else fails, willpower is the ultimate weapon. The more of it you have, the better your life becomes. The good news is that it works like a muscle – learn more at our learnographic here. Improve your willpower, improve your life.

Here’s to productivity!

In spite of

Every great story has adversity of some sort. Every memorable hero has shortcomings – often in plenty. And, find me a business or political leader who doesn’t have visible insecurities.

We can always choose to look at everything we do not have to do work that matters. Or we can choose to focus entirely on what we have going for us. A little bit more confidence that our plan will work and a lot more resources are always welcome, of course. But, often, what we have is more than adequate.

No one has a perfect start. No one has a perfect set of circumstances to do their life’s work. Every great thing we do requires us to make a difference in spite of the many obstacles.

So, when you’re starting on that jigsaw puzzle that is your next project and find a missing piece, don’t fret. Celebrate. Nothing great was ever done without the “in spite of”..


Opportunity is manufactured – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea from Things a Little Bird Told Me by Biz Stone.

When 11 year old Biz Stone (co-founder of Twitter) wanted to join a sports team at school, he hit upon a problem. He had spent the last 4 years as a part of a boy rangers organization and was far behind his class on sports like baseball and football. He barely understood the rules. But, he really wanted to play in a sports team and expand his circle of friends.

So, he hit upon an idea – if he could find a sport no one else in the class had played, he wouldn’t be the newbie anymore. After a bit of research, he found lacrosse and asked the school if they’d permit a lacrosse team if he found interested boys and a coach. Voila! Problem solved. Biz turned out to be a decent lacrosse player and ended up having a great set of friends.

The lesson from this for Biz? The world conditions us to believe that opportunity comes from a perfectly aligned set of circumstances. But, in truth, we can go out and create those circumstances. Opportunity can be manufactured.

Opportunity manufacturedSource and thanks to: www.EBSketchin.com

‘If you make the opportunity. you’ll be the first in the position to take advantage of it.’ | Biz Stone

Does it need to get done?

We were in the midst of a difficult crisis project. A massive amount of work needed to get done in limited time. We faced a wide variety of reactions as we worked with our client to get the work done.

As is generally the case, a few folks rose to the occasion. And, one of them became my absolute inspiration for doing difficult work.

When faced with a list of things that needed to be done, this wise friend would generally ask – “Does it need to get done?” And, when the answer was yes, she’d just say – “Well, let’s just suck it up and get it done.” And she would just get on with it. No frills, no fuss.

Her response was often in complete contrast to situation. But, that’s exactly what we needed. There was no time to sit down and make sure we felt good about what needed to be done. Things just needed to get done.. and they needed to get done now.

Difficult work isn’t done because it feels great. In fact, you’re often doing it when the cause seems hopeless.

Difficult work is done because people who realize it needs to get done just get on with it and do it.

When all looks bleak

If all looks bleak and negative today, it is probably a sign that you need some sleep.

On a Monday three weeks ago, I found myself feeling very negative. Every thing I was doing seemed headed down the drain. There came a moment when I was telling a friend I was disappointed with my performance on a test and that all was looking dark. He reminded me to follow the process. That was ironic because that’s what I generally do.

I realized then that there was something wrong. And, what was different about that day? 4 hours of sleep. A bit more thought led to this – optimism takes willpower -> sleep drains willpower => low sleep leads to low optimism.

This felt so obvious and, yet, I’d never made the connection. I needed a bit more evidence though and I got it over the past two days. I was running on low sleep over the past two days and, voila, I was as pessimistic as I had been for a long time. That’s not to say that pessimism is bad. A healthy dose of pessimism is useful. But, I find that we’re all wired with healthy amounts by default. It takes effort to look beyond the pessimism and focus on getting things done.

And, as I’ve recently discovered, sleep is critical to maintaining sufficient amounts of optimism.

One final musing – I also find optimism to be the key to making long-term decisions. Pessimism definitely doesn’t seem to inspire long-term thinking. I wonder if that is one of the contributors of the absence of long-term thinking among sleep deprived politicians and executives..

Unstructured to structured

As a rule, the world is a messy place. There’s a lot of chaos and randomness. While our actions certainly influence what happens to us, we’re also influenced by the actions of the many humans around us who are working to influence their lives. It isn’t an easy job facing an unstructured mess as we wake up in the morning (of course, it gets much harder if we’re sleep deprived – that’s a topic for another post).

The simplest tool I’ve found to move from unstructured to structured is the morning routine. I have a list of things I copy and paste into my task list every morning – blog, read feeds, clear email, charge phone, send a text to my wife with the day’s schedule, freshen up and get breakfast. All of this takes between an hour and ninety minutes but really sets me up for the day. And, there are two reasons it works.

The first is momentum. These are tasks I know how to do. So, getting started with these and checking them off builds momentum.

The second is comfort. I definitely find comfort in the predictability of this morning routine. While structure is helpful in providing the requisite clarity to remove procrastination and get things done, I think comfort is a very important effect of structure. On mornings when the rest of the day feels like going to war while running uphill and against the wind, a touch of comfort is always appreciated.

On mornings like today when I feel like I need a healthy dose of both momentum and comfort, it is nice to know that the morning routine will give me a head-start. The rest will be up to me and will depend on the choices I make through the day, of course.

But, that’s just normal service and is what makes life life. And, I sure am glad I’m in good health to experience it.

Reward systems and culture – MBA Learnings

My favorite learning from my course on Leadership in Organizations was the link between reward systems and culture.

I have struggled with questions around culture for a long time. In the teams I’ve built over the years, I have found that I have succeeded and failed in equal measure on culture. Leadership definitely influences culture. But, I was always left with the feeling that it isn’t just about leadership.

The insight from the class is that our best lever to changing culture is changing the reward system. Many seemingly disjointed learnings and experiences from the past few years clicked right into place.

Let me explain – every organization or team has a reward system comprised of tangible and intangible rewards. Tangible rewards are typically salaries and bonuses. Intangible rewards are what we decide to celebrate – e.g. in organizations where the senior management celebrates failure, failure is an example of an intangible reward. Every organization has quirks – some celebrate data-driven decisions, others celebrate good research while some others celebrate feats of engineering. This is, then, how leadership influences culture. Data-driven leaders encourage data-driven decisions (think Jeff Bezos), engineering-driven leaders reward feats of engineering (think Larry Page), etc. It is vital leaders take the time to build intangible reward systems because company cultures can end up feeling weak otherwise. And, outstanding organizations tend to always have strong, almost cult-ish, cultures.

This has so many interesting implications for us. I’d like to pick 3 –

1. If you’ve wondered why change initiatives regularly fail at large organizations, a big contributor is leaders not supporting change messages with change incentives. Saying an organization will support “disciplined experimentation” or “sales force collaboration” and not changing incentive systems to reward failure or team work changes squat.

2. Every time we lead teams, let’s be very conscious about what we celebrate and what we tolerate. We end up getting the behavior we tolerate and what we celebrate become the intangible rewards. So, if you want to encourage crazy ideas, celebrate crazy ideas and if you want to see innovation, encourage and celebrate failure. Whatever happens, pick something. Not picking is picking too.

3. Finally, we all have personal cultures. Let’s think about what that culture should be.. and what behaviors we must reward to get there.

Cultures persist. To change a person or organization, we must begin with changing culture. The good news is that we influence it with our reward system.

That doesn’t necessarily make changing culture easy… but it sure is worth the effort.

Weak, strong, intelligent

I came across this quote – “Weak people revenge, strong people forgive, intelligent people ignore.”

While in jest, I find this very true. Forgiveness, while an act of strength, does mean you spend time thinking about what happened. And that is often not worth the effort. Sh*t happens. Depending on how we’re feeling, it might even seem personal and directed at us. Sometimes it is. Most of the time, it really isn’t. Mountains and mole hills are often matters of perspective.

As I grow up, I’m learning to ignore so much more than before. I’m also learning that it is best to keep intensely focused on what we need to do and just be kind.

The world will roll on without us.