In the past I wrote about about how I like to read, experiment, and learn as much as possible about as many thing as possible. My goal isn’t to be the Jack of all trades and Master of none. Rather, I view knowledge and experience as pieces that can be used to build a mosaic of something interesting and/or worthwhile.
Years ago when I first started programming my manager had me work with the top performers in the group. Being inquisitive and always wanting to improve led me to ask a lot of questions in order to understand why things were done the way they were. One Analyst I worked with was extremely sensitive, and after fielding a few questions he told me, “Programming is like art. Two people will interpret things in two different ways, but in the end you will have two pictures that are similar and both do the job. So, quit messing with my picture.”
At first I was somewhat offended, but then I realized that much of what he stated was true. That led me to incorporate better methods and approaches into what I did, making them my own, as a way to continually improve. From that perspective learning really is somewhat of an artform.
What makes teaching worthwhile to me is helping people improve in ways that are their own, rather than teaching them how to do things in one specific “right” way. One analogy is that you are teaching people to navigate, rather that providing them with the route. Also, in order to be a good teacher you need to have a solid grasp on the topic, be willing and able to relate to students, and want to help them learn. It’s rewarding on a couple of different levels.
Your ability to teach well starts with your understanding of the topic, but that is just the foundation. Being able to apply a seemingly abstract concept to a concrete problem is a very helpful skill. In medicine they have the concept of, “See one, Do one, Teach one.” It is a great way to codify the knowledge and start developing the desired skills.
Being open to other approaches that might seem strange at first but then you see the brilliance in the solution is also helpful. Often a student would mention how they handled a problem and it sounded bizarre at first, but digging deeper into their approach resulted in understanding something that was actually pretty amazing.
Amazing teachers are out there, and I’ve met several of them. Those people are worth their weight in gold – especially when they are teaching children. They have their own kind of “magic” that can inspire people and provide the confidence and desire to do more than they ever dreamed was possible.
Teaching is about helping others, and not trying to be the smartest person in the room. And remember, not everyone wants to learn and/or improve so don’t take that personally. Just do your best to help the people who want to grow and improve. Mentoring is another good way to do this. You will be surprised at the positive impact one person can have by doing this.
A while back I wrote a post titled, “To Measure is to Know.”
The other side of the coin is that what you measure defines how people behave. This is an often forgotten aspect of Business Intelligence, Compensation Plans, Performance reviews, and other key areas in business. While many people view this topic as “common sense,” based on the numerous incentive plans that you run across as a consultant, as well as compensation plans that you submit as a Manager, that is not the case.
Is it a bad thing to have people respond by focusing on specific aspects of their job that they are being measured on? That is a tough question. This simple answer is, “sometimes.” This is ultimately the desired outcome of implementing specific KPIs (key performance indicators) and MBOs (Management by Objectives), but it doesn’t always work. Let’s dig into this a bit deeper.
One prime example is something seemingly easy yet often anything but – Compensation Plans. When properly implemented these plans drive organic business growth through increased sales, revenue, and profits (three related items that should be measured). This can also drive steady cash flow by constantly closing within certain periods (usually months or quarters) and focusing on models that create the desired revenue stream (e.g., perpetual license sales versus subscription license sales). What could be better than that?
Successful salespeople focus on the areas of their comp plan where they have the greatest opportunity to make money. Presumably they are selling the products or services that you want them to based on that plan. MBO goals can be incorporated into plans as a way to drive towards positive outcomes that are important to the business, such as bringing-on new reference accounts. Those are forward looking goals that increase future (as opposed to immediate) revenue. In a perfect world, with perfect comp plans, all of these business goals are codified and supported by motivational financial incentives.
Some of the most successful salespeople are the ones that primarily care only about themselves. They are in the game for one reason – to make money. Give them a plan that is well constructed and allows them to win and they will do so in a predictable manner. Paying large commission checks should be a goal for every business because with properly constructed compensation plans that means their own business is prospering. It needs to be a win-win setup.
But, give a salesperson a plan that is poorly constructed and they will likely find the ways to personally win with deals that are inconsistent with company growth goals (e.g., paying commission based on deal size, but not factoring in profitability and discounts). Even worse, give them a plan that doesn’t provide a chance to win and the results will be uncertain at best.
Just as most tasks tend to expand to use all time available, salespeople tend to book most of their deals at the end of whatever period is being used. With quarterly cycles most of the business tends to book in the final week or two of the quarter – something that is not ideal from a cash flow perspective. Using shorter monthly periods may increase business overhead, but the potential to significantly increase business from salespeople working harder for that immediate benefit will likely be a very worthwhile tradeoff.
What about motiving Services teams? What I did with my company was to provide quarterly bonuses based on overall company profitability and each individual’s contribution to our success that quarter. Most of our projects used task oriented billing where we billed 50% up-front and 50% at the time of the final deliverables. You needed to both start and complete a task within a quarter to maximize your personal financial contribution, so there was plenty of incentive to deliver and quickly move to the next task. As long as quality remains high this is a good thing.
We also factored-in salary costs (i.e., if you make more than you should be bringing-in more value to the company), the cost of re-work, and non-financial items that were beneficial to the company. For example, writing a white paper, giving a presentation, helping others, or even providing formal documentation on lessons learned added business value and would be rewarded. Everyone was motivated to deliver quality work products in a timely manner, help each other, and do things that promoted growth of the company. The company prospered and my team made good money making that happen. Another win-win scenario.
This approach worked very well for me, and was continually validated over the course of several years. It also fostered innovation, because the team was always looking for ways to increase their value and earn more money. Many tools, processes and procedures came out of what would otherwise be routine engagements. Those tools and procedures increased efficiency, consistency, and quality. They also made it easier to on-board new employees and to incorporate an outsourced team for larger projects.
Mistakes with comp plans can be costly – due to excessive payouts and/or because they are not generating the expected results. Back testing is one form of validation as you build a plan. Short-term incentive programs are another. Remember, without some risk there is usually little reward, so accept the fact that some risk must be taken to find the point where the optimal behavior is fostered and then make plan adjustments accordingly.
It can be challenging and time consuming to identify the right things to measure, the proper number of things (measuring too many or too few will likely fall short of goals), and provide the incentives that will motivate people to do what you want or need. But, if you want your business to grow and be healthy it is something that needs to be done well.
This type of work isn’t rocket science, and therefore is well within everyone’s reach.
Having great ideas that are not understood or validated is pointless, just as being great at “filling in the gaps” to do amazing things does not accomplish much if what you are building achieves little towards your goals. This post is about Dreaming Big, and then turning those dreams into actionable plans.
Let me preface this post by stating that both are important, and both are complementary roles. But, when you don’t recognize the difference between the two it becomes much harder to successfully execute and realize value/gain a competitive advantage.
The visionary person has great ideas but doesn’t always create plans or follow-through on developing the idea. There are many reasons why this happens (distractions, new interests, frustration, lack of time), so it is good to be aware of that as this type of person can benefit by being paired with someone who is willing and able to understand a new idea or approach, and then take the next steps to flesh out a high-level plan to present that idea and potential benefits to key stakeholders.
The insightful person sees the potential in an idea, helps others to understand the benefits and gain their support, and often creates and executes a plan to prototype and validate the idea – killing it off early if the anticipated goals are unachievable. They document, learn from these experiences, and become more and more proficient with validation of the idea or approach and quantification of the potential benefits.
Neither of these types of people are affected by loss aversion bias.
I find it amazing how frequently you hear someone referred to as being Visionary, only to see that the person in question was able to eliminate some of the noise and “see further down the road” than most people. While this is a valuable skill to have, it is more akin to analytics and science than art. Insight usually comes from focus, understanding, intelligence, and being open minded. Those qualities are important in both business and personal settings.
On the other hand, someone who is truly visionary looks beyond what is already illuminated and can therefore be detected or analyzed. It’s like a game of chess where the visionary person is thinking six or seven moves ahead. They are connecting the dots for the various future possibilities while their competitor is still thinking about their next move.
The interesting thing is that this can be very frustrating situation for everyone.
- The person with the good idea may become frustrated because they feel that they are misunderstood or ignored.
- The people around that visionary person become frustrated, wondering why that person isn’t able to focus on what is important or why they fail to see / understand the big picture.
- Those visionary ideas and suggestions are often viewed as tangential or even irrelevant. It is only over time that the others understand what the visionary person was trying to show them – often after a competitor has started to execute on the idea.
- The insightful person that wants to make a difference can feel constrained in environments that are static and offer little opportunity for change and improvement.
Both Insightful and Visionary people feel that they are being strategic. Both are focused on doing the right thing. Both have similar goals. That’s what is truly ironic. They may view each other as the competition, rather than seeing the potential of collaborating.
This is where a strong management team can have a positive impact by fostering a culture of innovation and placing these people together to work towards a common goal. Providing a small amount of time and resources to explore an idea can lead to amazing outcomes. When I had my consulting company I sometimes joked, “What would Google do?”
The insightful person may see a payback on their ideas much sooner than the visionary person, and I believe that is due to their focus on what is already in front of them. It may be a year or more before what the visionary person has described shifts to the mainstream and into the realm of insight – hopefully before it reaches the realm of common sense (or worse yet, is completely passed by).
My recommendation is that people create a system to gather ideas, along with a description of what the purpose, goals, and advantages of those ideas are. Foster creative behavior by rewarding people for participation, whether or not the ideas are used. Then, review those ideas on a regular basis. With any luck you will find some good ideas – some insightful and possibly some even visionary.
Look for commonalities and trends to identify the people who are able to cut through the noise or see beyond the periphery, and the areas having the greatest potential for innovation. This approach will help drive your business to the next level.
You never know where the next good idea will come from. Supporting efforts like these provide opportunities to grow – people, products, and profits.
I have been very fortunate throughout my career. There have been incredible opportunities, risks with big rewards, and lessons learned from mistakes and failure (e.g., one of the biggest lessons learned early is that most mistakes will not kill you, and therefore you can find a way to recover from them). In hindsight, I believe was has been most valuable in shaping my career are the people who saw something in me and invested in my career – my mentors.
None of these people had to help me. It’s possible that they did so for their own benefit (i.e., the better I do my job the easier it is for them), but I believe they were passing along a valuable gift. I was lucky have been given these gifts early in my career as they have been invaluable both personally and professionally.
As a mentee may not recognize either the value of what you are receiving, or the effort that has gone into providing that gift to you. It is only years later that you fully appreciate what others have done for you.
In my first programming job I had a manager (Jim) who assigned me to work with different key people and would follow-up every time to ask what I had learned. Then one day he gave me my first project. I was excited but anxious because I did not want to fail my mentor.
I only had six months of experience and this was a big project for an important automotive customer (Subaru, for the first customer loyalty coupon system for a major auto manufacturer in late 1980s). It was a stretch for me, and the system had to be production ready in six months.
He let me build it, checked daily to see if I had questions, would provide feedback and direction if I asked, but pretty much left me alone. He seemed much more calm and confident in my success than I did at the time.
After two months I thought I was finished. We reviewed everything and he picked the system apart – showing me the flaws and then discussing the logic and reasoning behind my decisions. We spent half a day on this exercise and it was only years later that I realized that he was helping me learn more than validating the system design.
After another two months or so we reviewed the second iteration of this system. He told me while this version would work and would be acceptable from anyone else, I still had time remaining and he was confident that I could do even better next time. He provided a couple of tips about high-level areas he focused on while designing and developing systems and left it at that.
When I came back with the third iteration system he reviewed it, smiled, and said that he could not have done this better himself. At first I was proud of successfully completing my first independent project, but later I realized how much I had learned in those six months. This experience had provided me with a lifelong benefit as well as provided the motivation to help others in a similar manner. My mentor was (and still is) a great leader!
As a manager this person had so many reasons not to give me the project, to just tell me what to do, and to not let me redo it (twice). From a short-term management perspective what he did was wasteful. But, from a big picture perspective he was doing things that helped me create so much more value for the company for the 3-4 years I continued to work there. The benefit certainly outweighed the cost, and this person was wise enough to see that.
Several years ago there was a young woman in Australia that contacted me via LinkedIn, asking for suggestions on improving her skills in order to advance her career. I gave her many assignments over the course of a year and she did amazing work. She advanced in her company, later relocated to another country, and then switched industries. She currently holds a high-level position and has been very successful. It made me feel good knowing that my efforts played a small part in her advancement.
From my perspective it all comes down to how you view people and relationships. Are they like commodities that are used and replaced as needed, or are they assets that can grow in value? I like to think that I have helped the “career portfolio” of several people – which helps ensure that business is not a zero sum game. Hopefully those people will do the same thing, creating leverage on those investments.
So, what do you think?
As an entrepreneur you will typically get advice like, “Fail fast and fail often.” I always found this somewhat amusing, similar to the saying, “It takes money to make money” (a lot of bad investments are made using that philosophy). Living this yourself is an amazing experience – especially when things turn out well. But as I have written about before, you learn as much from the good experiences as you do from the bad ones.
Innovating is tough. You need people who are always thinking of different and better ways of doing things, or who question why something has to be done or made a certain way. It takes confidence to ask questions that many would view as stupid (“Why would you do that, it’s always been done this way.”) But, when you have the right mix of people and culture, amazing things can and do happen, and it feels great.
Innovating also takes a willingness to lose time and money, with the hope of winning something big enough later to make it all worthwhile. This is where a lot of companies fall short because they lack the patience, budget, or appetite to fail. I personally believe that this is the reason why innovation often flows from small companies and small teams. For them, the prospect of doing something really cool or making a big impact is motivation enough to give something a try.
It takes a lot of discipline to follow a plan when a project appears to be failing, but it takes even more discipline to kill a project that has demonstrated real potential but isn’t meeting expectations. That was one of my first, and probably most important lessons learned in this area. Let me explain…
In 2000 we looked at franchising our “Consulting System” – processes, procedures, tools, metrics, etc. that had been developed and proven in my business. We believed that this approach could help average consultants deliver above average work products. The idea seemed to have real potential.
It took a lot of work finding an attorney who would even consider this idea. Most believed it would be impossible to proceduralize a somewhat ambiguous task like solving a business or technical problem. We finally found an attorney who, after a 2-hour no-cost interview, agreed to work with us. When I later asked him about his approach, he replied “I did not want to waste my [his] time or our money on a fool’s errand.”
We estimated it would take 12 months and cost approximately $100,000 to fully develop our consulting system. We met with potential prospects to validate the idea (it would have been illegal to pre-sell the system) and then got to work. Twelve months turned into 18, and the original $100K budget increased nearly 50%. All indications were positive and we felt very good about the success and business potential for this effort.
Then, the terror attacks occurred on Sept. 11th and businesses everywhere saw a decline. In early 2002 we reevaluated the project and felt that it could be completed within the next 6-8 months and would cost another $50K+.
After a long and emotional debate we decided to kill the project – not because we felt it would not work, but rather because there was less of a target market and now the payback period (time to value) would double or triple. This was one of the most difficult business decisions that I ever made.
A big lesson learned from this experience was that our approach needed to be more analytical.
- From that point forward we created a budget for “time off” (we bought our own time, as opposed to waiting for bench time) and for other project related items.
- We developed a simple system for collecting and tracking ideas and feedback. When an idea felt right we would take the next steps and create a plan with a defined budget, milestones, and timeline. If the project failed to meet any of the defined objectives it would be killed – No questions asked.
- We documented what we did, why we decided to do it, our goals, and expected outcomes. Regardless of success or failure we would have postmortem reviews to learn and document as much as possible from every effort.
We still had failures, but with each one we took less time and spent less money. More importantly, we learned how to do this better, and that helped us realize several successes. It provided both the structure and the freedom to create some amazing things. And, since failing was an acceptable outcome it was never feared.
This approach was much more than just, “failing fast and failing often,” it was intelligent failure, and it served us well for nearly a decade.