I have recently been investigating and visiting universities with my eldest daughter, who is currently a Senior in High School. Last week we visited Stanford University (an amazing experience I will post about soon) and then spent a week in Northern California on vacation. After being home for a day and a half I am currently in Texas for a week of team meetings and training. The first night of a trip I seldom sleep, so I was listening to the song, “Don’t let it bring you down” by Annie Lennox, which is a cover of a Neil Young song. That led to a Youtube search for the original Neil Young version, which led to me listening to the song “Old Man” – a favorite song of mine for over 30 years. That led to some reflection, which ultimately led to this post.
The reason that I mention this is because it is an example of the tangential thought process (which is generally viewed as a negative trait) that occurs naturally for me. It is something that helps me “connect the dots” more naturally. It is part of the non-linear thinking associated with ADHD (again, something generally viewed as negative). The interesting thing is that in order to fit in and be successful with ADHD you tend to develop logical systems for focus and consistency. That has many positive benefits – such as creating repeatable processes and automation.
The combination of linear and non-linear thinking can really fuel creativity. The downside is that it can take quite a while for others to see the potential of those ideas, which can be extremely frustrating. But, you learn to deal with that. The upside is that you tend to create relationships with other innovators because they often tend to think like you do. The world is a strange place.
It is funny how there are several points in your life when you have an epiphany and things make complete sense, which causes you to realize how much time and effort could have been saved if you had only been able to figure that out sooner. As a parent I am continually trying to create shortcuts for my children so that they can reach those points much sooner than I did.
I started this post thinking that I would document as many of those lessons as possible to serve as a future reminder. But, like most children, they will each learn in their own way and at their own pace. So instead, I decided to post a few things that I view as foundational truisms that could help foster that growth process. So, here goes…
- Always work hard to be the best, but never let yourself believe that you are the best. Even if you truly are, it will be short lived as there are always people out there doing everything that they can to be the best. Ultimately, that is a good thing. You need to have enough of an ego to test the limits of things, but not one that is so big that it alienates or marginalizes those around you.
- Learn from everything you do – good or bad. Continuous improvement is so important, and by focusing on this you constantly challenge yourself to try new things and find better (i.e., more effective, more efficient, and more consistent) ways to do things.
- Realize that the difference between a brilliant and a stupid idea is often perspective. Years ago I taught technical courses, and occasionally someone would describe something they did that just seemed strange or wrong. But, if you took the time to ask questions and try to understand why they did what they did you would often identify the brilliance in that approach. It is something that is both exciting and humbling.
- Incorporating new approaches or best practices of others into your own proven methods and processes is part of continuous improvement, but it only works if you are able to set aside your ego and keep an open mind.
- Believe in yourself, even when others don’t share that belief. Remain open to feedback and constructive criticism as a way to learn and improve, but never give up on yourself. There is a huge but sometimes subtle difference between confidence and arrogance, and that line is often drawn at the point where you can accept that you might be wrong, or that there might be a better way to do something. Become the person that people like working with, and not the person that they avoid or want to see fail.
- Surround yourself with the best people that you can find, but look for people with diverse backgrounds and complementary skills. The best teams that I have ever been involved with consisted of high achievers who constantly raised the bar for each other while simultaneously creating a safety net for their teammates. The team grew and did amazing things because everyone was both very competitive and very supportive of each other.
- Keep notes or a journal because good ideas are often fleeting and hard to recall. And remember, good ideas can come from anywhere so keep track of the suggestions of others and make sure that attribute those ideas to the proper source.
- Try to make a difference in the world. Try to leave everything your “touch” (job, relationship, project, whatever) in a better state that before you were there. Helping others improve and leading by example are two simple ways of making a difference.
- Accept that failure is a natural obstacle on your path to success. You are not trying hard enough if you never fail. But, you are also not trying hard enough if you fail too often. That is very subjective, and honest introspection is your best gauge. Be accountable, accept responsibility, document the lessons learned, and move on.
- Dream big, and use that as motivation to learn new things. While I was funding medical research efforts I spent time learning about genetics, genomics, and biology. That expanded to interests in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, neural networks and interfaces such as natural language and non-verbal / emotional. Someday I hope to tie these together in a way that could help cure a disease (Arthritis) and improve the quality of life for millions of people. Will that ever happen? I don’t know, but I do know that if I don’t try it will never happen because of anything that I did.
- Focus on the positive, not the negative. Creativity is stifled when there is fear of blame.
- Never hesitate to apologize when you are wrong. This is a sign of strength, not weakness.
- And above all else, honesty and integrity should be the foundation for everything you do and are.
Hopefully this will help my children become the best people possible, and hopefully early-on in their lives. I was 30 years old before I feel that I really had a clue about a lot of these things. Until then I was somewhat selfish and focused on winning. Winning and success are good things, but they are better when done the right way.
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 mentioned 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 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.”) When you have the right mix of people and culture, amazing things can 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 believe that this is why innovation often flows from small companies and small teams, as with them the prospect of doing something really cool 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 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 were proven in our business. We believed that this could help average consultants deliver above average work products. It took a lot of work finding an attorney who would even consider they believed it would be impossible to proceduralize a somewhat ambiguous task like solving a business or technical problem. We found an attorney who after a 2-hour interview agreed to work with us (as he said, he “didn’t want to waste his time or our money on a fools errand.”)
We estimated it would take 12 months and cost $100,000 or less to fully develop. 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 $100K budget increased almost 50%. But, all indications were positive and we felt very good about 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 would double or triple. This was one of the most difficult business decisions that I ever made.
A big lesson learned was that our approach had 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 had a simple system for collecting and tracking ideas and feedback. And, when an idea felt right we would 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. We documented what we did, why we did what we did, and would have postmortem reviews to learn 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 was much more than just, “failing fast and failing often,” it was intelligent failure, and it worked for us.
One of the biggest changes to my professional perspective on business came during the seven years that I was running my own consulting business. Prior to that I had worked as an employee for midsize to large companies for ten years, and as one of the first hires at a start-up technology company. I felt that the combination of doing hands-on work, managing, selling, and helping establish a start-up (where I did not have an equity stake) provided everything needed to start my own business.
Well, guess what? I was only partially correct. I was prepared for the activities of running the business, but really was not prepared for the responsibility of running a business. While this seems like it should be obvious, what I’ve seen many times since then is that small business owners usually focus the majority of their efforts on growth / upside. That type of optimism is important for entrepreneurs – without it they would not bother putting so much at risk. I will write more posts about my business ownership experiences later.
People tend to adopt a different perspective on the decision making process once they realize that every action and decision can impact the money moving into and out of their own wallet. Even in a large business you can typically spot the people who have taken these risks and run their own business. It’s more than just striking out on your own as a contractor or sole proprietor. I’m talking about the people who have had employees, invested in capital equipment, and went all-in. These are the people thinking about the big picture.
What do these people do differently than people who have not had this type of experience?
One of the biggest things is they view business in terms of “good business” and “bad business.” Not all business is good business, and not all customers are good customers. There needs to be a fair commercial exchange where both sides receive value, mutual respect, and open communication. You know this is working when your customers treat you like a true partner (a real trusted advisor) instead of a vendor. A business is in business to make money, so if the work is not profitable it is very likely that you should not be doing it. And, if you are not delivering value to an organization it is very likely that you would be better off spending your time elsewhere – building your reputation and reference base.
When you are not thinking or acting like an owner it is all about the sale and your commission. Selling products and services that people don’t need, charging too little or too much, and making promises that you know will not be met are typical signs of a person who is not thinking like an owner. Their focus is on the short-term, and they often feel that someone else will fix this once it becomes their problem.
How you view and treat employees is another big difference. Unfortunately, even business owners do not always get this. My feeling is that employees are either viewed as Assets (to be managed for growth and long-term value) or Commodities (to be used-up and replaced as needed – usually viewed as fungible and treated as if they are easily replaceable). Your business is usually only as good as your employees, so treating them well and with respect creates loyalty and results in higher customer satisfaction. Successful business owners usually look for the best person out there, and not just the most affordable person who is “good enough” to do the job. The flipside is that you need to weed out the people who are not a good fit quickly. Making good decisions quickly and decisively is often a hallmark of a successful business owner.
Successful business owners are generally more innovative. They understand the need to find a niche where they can win and provide good and/or services that are different and often better than what larger vendors offer. Sometimes this means specialization and customization, and sometimes this means more attention and better support. Regardless of what is different, these people are observant of the small details, understand their target market, and are good at defining a message that articulates that difference. These are the people that seem to be able to see around corners and anticipate both problems and opportunities. They do this out of necessity.
Former business owners are usually more conscientious about money, taking a “my money” perspective on sales and expenses. Every dollar in the business provides safety and opportunity for growth. These usually are not the people who routinely spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on business meals, or who take unnecessary or questionable trips to nice places. Money saved on things like travel or training expenses can be invested in new products, features, or marketing for an organization.
While these are commonly traits found in successful business owners, it is possible to develop them even if you have never owned a business. Do you understand the big picture vision and mission of the company that you work at? Who is your competition and how are they different? How is their messaging different? When selling, are you focused on delivering value, developing a positive reputation within that organization, and profiting on the long-term relationship? When delivering services, is your focus on delivering what has been contracted – and doing so on time and within budget? Are your projects used as examples of how things should be done within other organizations? Are you spending money on the right things – not wasteful or extravagant?
These are all things that employees at all levels can do. They will make a difference and will help you stand out. That opens the door to career growth and change. And, it may get you thinking about starting that business you have always dreamed of. Awareness and understanding are the first steps to change and improvement.