high performance culture

One Successful Approach to Innovation that worked for an SMB

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When I owned a consulting company we viewed innovation as an imperative. It was the main thing that created differentiation, credibility, and opportunity. We had an innovation budget, solicited ideas from the team, and evaluated those ideas quarterly.

Almost as important to me was that this was fun. It gave everyone on the team the chance to suggest ideas and participate in the process. That was meaningful and supported the collaborative, high-performance culture that had developed. The team was inspired and empowered to make a difference, and that led to an ever-increasing sense of ownership for each employee.

The team also had a vested interest in having the process work, as quarterly bonuses were paid based on their contributions to the company’s profitability. There was a direct cause and effect correlation with tangible benefits for every member of the team.

We developed the following 10 questions qualify & quantify the potential of new ideas:

  1. What will this new thing do?
    • It is important to be very detailed as this was used to create a common vision of success based on the idea being presented.
  2. What problem(s) does this solve and how so?
    • This seems obvious, but if you are not solving a problem (which could be something like “lack of organic expansion”) or addressing a pain point then selling this new product will be an uphill challenge.
  3. What type of organizations have those problems and why?
    • This was fundamental to understanding if a fix was possible from a practical perspective, what the value of that fix might be for the target buyer, and how much market potential existed to scale this new offering.
  4. What other companies have created solutions or are working on solutions to this problem?
    • The lack of competition today does not mean that you are the first one to attack this problem. Due diligence can help avoid repeating the failure of others, and potentially provide lessons learned by others and help you avoid similar pitfalls.
  5. Will this expand our existing business, or does it have the potential to open up a new market for us?
    • There are upsides and downsides to each answer, but breaking into a new market can take more time and be more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to achieve.
  6. Is this Strategic, Tactical, or Opportunistic?SOX Brochure Cover
    • An idea may fall into multiple categories. When Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act became law we viewed a new service offering as both a tactical means to protect our managed services business as well as an opportunistic means to acquire new customers and grow the business.
  7. What are the Cost, Time, and Skill estimates for developing a Minimally Viable Product (MVP) or Service?
  8. What are the Financial Projections for the first year?
    • Cost to develop and go-to-market.
    • Target selling price, factoring-in early adopter discounts.
    • Estimated Contribution Margin Ratio (for comparison with other ideas being considered).
    • Break-even point.
  9. Would we be able to get an existing customer to pre-purchase this?
    • A company that is willing to provide a PO that commits to making a purchase of that MVP within a specific timeframe increased our confidence in the viability of the idea.
  10. What are the specific Critical Success Factors to be used for evaluation purposes?
    • This was an important lesson learned over time that helped minimize emotional attachment to the idea or project, as well as providing objective milestones for critical go / no-go decision making.

 

This process was purposeful, agile, lean, and somewhat aggressive. We believed it gave our company a competitive advantage over larger companies that tended to respond slower to new opportunities and smaller competitors that did not want to venture outside their wheelhouse.

With each project, we learned and became more efficient and effective, and made better investment decisions that positively impacted our success. We monitored progress on an ongoing basis relative to our defined success criteria, and adjusted or sunset an offering if it stopped providing the required value.

The process was not perfect…

For example, we passed on a couple of leading-edge ideas such as a “Support Robot” in 2003 that was essentially an interactive program that used a machine-learning algorithm. It was to be trained using historical log files, could quickly and safely be tested in a production environment, refined as needed and ultimately validated.

This automation could have been used with our existing managed services and Remote DBA customers to further mitigate the risk of unplanned outages. Most importantly, it would have provided leverage to take-on new business without jeopardizing quality or adding staff – thereby increasing revenue and profit margin.

At the time we believed this would be too difficult to sell to prospective customers (“pipe dream” and “snake oil” were some of the adjectives we envisioned), so it appeared to lack a few items required by the process. Live and learn.

In summary, having a defined approach for something as important as business needs innovation to grow and prosper, as best demonstrated by market leaders like Amazon and Google (read the 10-K Annual Reports to gain a better understanding of their competitive growth strategies that are largely based on innovation).

Implementing this type of approach within a larger organization requires additional steps, such as getting the buy-in from a variety of stakeholders and aligning with existing product roadmaps, but is still the key to scalable growth for most businesses.

Good article on being an Entrepreneur

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Nearly every morning I start the day out by reviewing news on business, technology, and finance / markets. Occasionally there is a general interest article that I stumble across. Today it was a short article about Curt Culver, Co-Founder of Culver’s restaurants.

There are several great points that seem like common sense in hindsight, but are often well out of focus during the “heat of the battle” as you are building your business. Mr. Culver touches several of them:

  1. The Importance of having the proper Work / Life Balance
    • For me personally, this was one of the toughest aspects of growing my business. I was working 100+ hours a week, traveling a minimum of 50% of the time, and was often “not there,” even when I was spending time with my family.
      • My habits also set the expectations for others on the team, and I later realized that this created some strife at home for them as well.
    • The turning point for me was when my youngest daughter, then 4 years old, was telling her twin brother and my older daughter that, “Daddy really does love us, he just works all the time so that we can live here and have all of this stuff.” It was painful enough to hear that, but was a wake-up call about what is really important in life – people (especially family and friends), not “stuff.”
  2. The Need to Develop others on your Team
    • From past experiences I understood the need to hire the best people who you could afford – people with complementary skills (not just clones of yourself), and who were better than you in at least one aspect.
    • One of my goals around developing my team was to have everyone understand the big picture, and empower them to make good decisions for the business. 
      • While most of this occurred, my goal was to have each and every person think and act like owners of the business. That level of engagement and accountability only happened with my most senior person, who was also my first hire and actually did own a small part of the company.
    • The moment when I recognized success was during a mission-critical ERP system upgrade for our largest customer – a multi-billion dollar semiconductor reseller. I sat-in on project and team meetings, reviewed reports, and asked a few questions, but that was it. It was a very proud and empowering moment for me.
      • The weekend of the pre-migration test I received a call telling me that everything had been successful and that the migration was going forward the next weekend.
      • The following weekend I received a nightly summary email, and on Sunday afternoon received a call telling me that the new system was operational and supporting production with ease.
  3. Culture
    • Mr. Culver states that, “Culture is all about people.” That is true, but it is just one aspect of culture.
    • To me, the Cultural Identity of your company starts out as something aspirational, and grows into the glue that bonds each and every member on your team. It helps bring out the best in everyone, including the camaraderie and support that comes from working with people who you like and trust.
      • There were two unexpected consequences of actively focusing on culture, which were:
        1. We quickly transformed into a High Performance Organization. Everyone pushed to continually “raise the bar.” There was healthy competition between people, but each member of the team was there to be a “safety net” for others as having the team win was far more important that winning as an individual.
        2. New Hires that were not a good fit recognized that very quickly, and usually quit within the first 2-3 weeks. I only had to terminate one person during the probationary period that wasn’t a good fit.
  4. Having a Support System
    • Mr. Culver addresses failure and the importance of family to help support you in times of need.
    • One of the biggest lessons learned for me personally was nothing that I did or accomplished with my company would have been possible without the support of my wife, children, parents and in-laws (the later two providing financial support during the early years in times of need).
      • With understanding comes humility.

These are lessons learned that can be applied to any size organization, and in my opinion are a great investment in the future growth, value, and longevity of your company.

Here is the link to the article referenced – https://www.qsrmagazine.com/start-finish-what-inspires-execs/craig-culver-culture-all-about-people

Non-Linear Thought Process and a Message for my Children

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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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Focus on the positive, not the negative. Creativity is stifled when there is fear of blame.
  12. Never hesitate to apologize when you are wrong. This is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  13. 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.

Why do you want to teach?

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I’ve mentioned in the past that 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 wanting to improve, I asked a lot of questions to understand why things were done the way they were, and learn as much as possible. 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 told me was right. That led me to incorporate better methods and approaches into what I did, making them my own, as a way to continually improve. It really was a lot like art from that perspective.

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.

Amazing teachers are out there, and I’ve met many of them. Those people are worth their weight in gold – especially when they are teaching your children. They have their own kind of “magic” that can inspire people and help them do more than they ever thought was possible.

But, those aren’t the people that the rest of this post is about. This is about corporate trainers, training companies, and consultants that engage in training, and people who just view training as a way to make an easy buck. Good content is expensive to create, and good trainers need to have subject matter expertise and a passion for what they do (similar to good teachers in any context).

The book that I am currently reading is, “Leadership and Training for the Fight” by Paul R. Howe, a retired U.S. Army Special Operations Master Sergeant. The focus of the book is on mindset and mental discipline – two things that I believe are very important (which is how I stumbled across this book).

While there is a lot of good content in this book, there was one section that struck a chord with me. So, here it is:

“Why do you want to teach?

Before you can begin teaching, you must ask yourself the most basic question: Why do you want to teach? Are you driven by ego, your self-esteem? Do you merely like to hear yourself talk, or do you have a genuine desire to pass information along?”

To paraphrase the rest, adding my own take, take the time to first figure out why you want to teach. Is it to bolster your ego to feel important? Or, does it look to be an easy road to a steady paycheck? These things don’t add value for your students, and most will easily see right through you. A good reputation is hard to get and easy to lose – words to live by in my book.

However, if you are looking to honestly help, are willing to continue to learn yourself to be the best that you can be, and able know when you are in over your head so you can look for help – then that is a great start. Every time you are handed a lesson plan try to make it better than when you received it. Finally, give it your all and really try to make a positive impact. It only requires a bit of work ethic and pride.

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. Being open to other approaches that might seem strange at first but then you see the brilliance in the solution is also helpful.

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 people grown and improve. To me, that’s the right reason to want to teach.

The People who Move the Dial

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Whether you are a business owner, a manager, or a parent, finding the right way to motivate your team is important to maximize performance and results. Each person is a little bit different, is looking for something a little different, and once you figure out what is important you can get the most out of them. Not everyone wants to be a star – and that is usually OK (as long as they have the right attitude, skills and work ethic).

But, there are those exceptional people that want to be the best, are willing to take risks, work hard, and “think different” in order to succeed. These are the people who are self-motivated, and continue to raise the bar for the entire team as part of a high-performance culture. These are the people who move the dial.

I’ve had the pleasure of being taught by people like this, working with people like this, managing people like this, and helping a few people become people like this. Every once in a while you have a few of these special people working together, and that is when really amazing things happen. These people are generally curious and wonder “why not?”  They are confident (not arrogant), intelligent, and passionate about being successful.

Back when I was funding research projects I had a trip scheduled to Philadelphia. I asked a friend at a local hospital to make an introduction to meet someone from “CHOP” (the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia). They were always ranked as one of the top hospitals, and I wanted to see why. The introduction was made and a lunch meeting was scheduled. I was looking forward to the meeting, but had no real expectations for the meeting.

Much to my surprise, a half-dozen people in a large conference room with a catered lunch greeted me.  They gave me presentations on their various projects (which was unusual as they did not know me, but did know I was involved with research projects at other facilities). Everyone in the room was amazing, and the department head (Dr. Terri Finkel) was one of the most impressive people that I had ever met.

After lunch was over I told Dr. Finkel that I appreciated the lunch, but wondered why they went to so much trouble when I never promised to do anything in return for them. She just smiled and replied, “We love what we do, and love having the opportunity to talk about our projects and passions to people who have similar interests.”  That made a huge impression on me, and within about six months we were funding projects using a unique approach that Terri suggested in response to a question I had about getting the most “bang for my research dollars.”

Over the course of a few years this team did incredible things that had a tangible impact on Pediatric Rheumatology. There were many great researchers, but two of them really stood out (Drs. Sandy Burnham and Randy Cron – both continue to do amazing things to this day).  The results of this team were so much better than everyone else that we supported. They provided a huge return on my investment, and I can take pride in knowing that in some small way I made a difference through these efforts.

To me it came back to the basics. Intelligent people who were passionate about making a difference, who were confident enough to be challenged, and who were led by a visionary person who saw an opportunity to motivate her team and help me achieve my goals. It’s the best type of win-win scenario possible.

These people moved the dial back then, and continue to move it today. It is a thing of beauty to watch stars like this perform. These are the people who shine twice as bright and guide others down the path to success. And, you can find them in every industry and every walk of life.

For anyone interested, this is a link to an article about Dr. Finkel and her team – http://www.comp-soln.com/CHOP_article_2004.pdf