Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff

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Jul
28

New Google Search Tools

I may be the last person on the planet to learn this stuff, but just in case, I thought I would tell everyone here about two Google search features that I just ran across: view:timeline and view:map.  As is true for almost everything that comes out of Google, I believe that this search functionality is in “beta.”

Say you were interested in the history of Napoleon.  You could go to one of a variety of reference documents on the web and read a load of stuff to get the details of what you’re looking for, or you could type “napoleon view:timeline” into any Google form and you’d get something like this:

Napoleon-Timeline

Or, say you’re a more graphical person and you’d like a picture of Napoleon’s conquests.  You can enter “napoleon view:map” into the Google search form and get something like this:

Napoleon-Map

OK, it’s not perfect.  The push-pins in the US don’t really work, but most of the references were dead-on.

Very cool stuff.  Definitely worth checking out (if you haven’t already) and trying to remember for when you actually need a tool like this.

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 July 28th, 2007  
 Will  
 Misc Thoughts  
   
 2 Comments
Jul
28

US-Based Discovery Channel Team Takes First and Third in this Year’s Tainted TDF

There are some that are calling for this year’s Tour de France to conclude without crowning a winner.  That seems patently absurd to me.  To punish those who are clean because some used drugs or doping to compete makes no sense.  It’s like calling off the World Series because some players were found to be taking steroids.  Geesh.  Take the cheaters out back and shoot ’em.  Let the honest ones have their glory.

If there is any good news to come out of the Tour, at least for Americans, it’s that the US-based Discovery Channel team will take first and third in the race.  While there is one more leg to go tomorrow, traditionally, riders do not try to jockey for position during the stage.  It’s more ceremonial.

The Discovery Channel Team’s 24-year-old Spanish rider, Alberto Contador, will be wearing the Yellow Jersey for the final stage and will be crowned this year’s TDF winner.  34-year-old American Levi Leipheimer, also of Discovery Channel, will share the podium in third place, having completed today’s final time trial with the fastest time.  Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto team) of Australia will take second place.  One more Discovery Channel rider, Yaroslav Popovych (UKR) also finished in the top ten of the race with eighth place.

I’m sure the irony of the fact that the only team, Discovery Channel, from the country with the absolute least interest in the sport in the world, the US, takes first and third positions in the race is not lost on some disgruntled competitors.  Additionally, Americans will take four of the top 25 positions in the race.  Maybe that doesn’t seem earth-shattering, but again, how many kids grow up in the US thinking their going to be professional cyclists?  Not such a bad showing after all.

 July 28th, 2007  
 Will  
 Cycling  
   
 4 Comments
Jul
27

Tour de Catastrophe, Tour de Shame, Tour de Failure

Holy crow!  What a disaster.  So, the Tour de France started with several top riders accused of doping being banned from the race.  Then, during the Tour, a few other riders were kicked out for failing blood tests or illegal blood transfusions, including Alexandre Vinokourov, who was favored to win.  In fact, the manager of Vinokourov’s team pulled his Astana Cycling Team from the race entirely.    Following that, the Confidis Team pulled out of the Tour after its lead rider, Cristian Moreni, failed a drug test.

Now, Michael Rasmussen, the clear leader of this year’s Tour de France, holding the Yellow Jersey (worn by the current overall leader) for most of the race, has been fired by his own team, Robobank, for lying to the team and missing several scheduled drug tests.  This move takes him and the team out of contention.

As of now, Alberto Contador, of the US Discovery Team has the Yellow Jersey.  The Discovery Channel Team has three riders in the top ten.

So, is Contador the last man standing?  Is anyone clean?  Professional cycling is a sport for the elite of the elite.  It requires a combination of superhuman genetics, non-stop training and a will to win that overcomes the agony of climbing 100+ mile hills for 26 straight days.  It appears that the self-selecting group of top riders in the world have found that there is no way to differentiate between themselves other than to push their bodies beyond their already distorted genetics.

These guys get tested for drug use constantly.  The top riders even get tested frequently enough to see if they’re getting transfusions of their own oxygenated blood.  Can more be done?  Can the sport be cleaned up?  I dunno.  It would be very sad if young cyclists come to believe that they can only win by following their now banned brethren.

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 July 27th, 2007  
 Will  
 Cycling  
   
 3 Comments
Jul
27

Miracle Grass – Never Needs Mowing

It seems that I’ve stumbled upon one of the greatest agricultural breakthroughs of our time – grass that never needs mowing.  I have a yard full of the stuff.  Low maintenance, time-saving and great for the environment.

There appears to be only two problems with it.  It only comes in one color – brown, and big clouds of dirt, reminiscent of the dust bowl during the depression, get kicked up when you walk through it.  Oh yeah, and it seems to catch fire really easily.

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 July 27th, 2007  
 Will  
 Misc Thoughts  
   
 4 Comments
Jul
22

Bugs . . . They Eat Product Sales for Lunch

Sure, it’s theoretically possible to create bug-free high-tech products.  That is, products that seem “bug-free” to the user when they:

  • are used exactly as intended by their creator
  • are used by users who are only looking for a common and strict subset of the product’s prescribed functionality
  • are always used in the same, well-known environment
  • are intuitive or their use is completely understood by the user

But is it commercially feasible to make them bug-free?  Can you keep up with the market when differentiation is virtually unsustainable, if even achievable, while trying to discover and repair 100% of the potential failures in a complex product?  I can’t imagine how this would work.

A guy who came to work for me once had just come out of a software development gig at NASA.  At the time, NASA believed that an experienced engineer could produce only 3 lines of fully-debugged code per day.  It’d be difficult to find commercial success without thousands of developers at that rate.  Even that didn’t prevent NASA from plowing the 1999 Mars Climate Orbiter deep into the surface of the Red Planet as a result of a screw up that had one team working in English units and another working in metric ones.

Of course, the discussion of whether or not the creation of bug-free products can or should happen is a big one.  One which I neither have the capability no inclination to address in this post.  What I want to talk about, though, is the sales impact of bugs.  Bugs found by customers during key evaluation and decision-making moments create the biggest barrier to effective selling there is.  When the customer finds problems with your product while making a decision to purchase, renew, upgrade or simply add more to what they’ve purchased preciously, the sales person not only loses their ability to hold the line on sales terms, but they may get caught in a quagmire of having to deal with the bugs instead of closing up the deal and moving on to a new customer, virtually killing sales productivity.

So, even if we accept the fact that most high-tech products are bound to have some bugs, it’s critical for any company doing development to at least make the product appear bug free and limit the chances of the user finding bugs at critical times or in critical places – the most important of those being during the sales cycle.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you purists out there don’t like thinking about it this way, although from a corporate standpoint, it may the biggest issue.  You’re saying that it’s about the technology, the product, the elegance of the solution.  That’s all nice, but if you plan on making money with your product, it better have great curb appeal.  And, there’s nothing quite like your baby failing miserably during an eval to get your customer to search for a competing solution quickly.

Think about a spreadsheet that shows off one, single math flaw in testing.  Will the customer ever trust it again?  What about the blood pressure monitor that reads 50 points too low once in a while or a GPS receiver that loses it’s satellite connection intermittently (perhaps while guiding a cruise missile?).  These bugs create unrecoverable sales issues.  Pack it up and head back to the office because that customer will never write you a check.

I’m not saying here that your product can be crap once the user has paid for it.  When the user encounters problems, which they inevitably will do after purchase, you need to support the hell out of them and get the bugs addressed as quickly as possible.  My point is simply that in terms of priorities, eliminating bugs that are likely to be found during the sales process is a higher priority.

Thus, it’s critical that after making sure that your product does all the important stuff you claim it does, you wring out sales prevention issues as a top priority before delivering it to customers.  It’s not hard to do, but it does take extra effort in terms of preparation and fortitude to prevent the knee-jerk reaction of shipping a product as soon as it meets the most basic quality criteria.  Here are the minimum steps required to make sure that the product helps sales, not hinders them.

  • First, eat your own dog food.  Use the “completed” product exactly like the customer will use it during the evaluation.  Think about the mistakes they’ll make along the way and how they will deviate from the prescribed route and flow of how the product is supposed to be used.  Build an environment in which your product can be regression tested the way the user will try to break it and pound it to death.
  • Then, if you have customer support or field engineering people, use them to route out problems.  These people are the closest to the customer, so they usually have a better sense for how the product will be used than the engineering team.  The idea is not complete and thorough testing, the idea is to find all the problems that new user will likely hit as they ramp up quickly.  Key areas to test are not only functional errors, but speed and capacity.  During this period, these employees should rule – don’t let anxious engineering or marketing people wave them off.  If they say it’s a problem, it likely is one.
  • Then and only then, beta test it at your most friendly existing customers (if there are no existing customers, have your employees on site when the prospective customer is trying it out).  Ask them to involve novices who don’t have a preconceived notion for how the product should be used.  Love them and care for them.  Make their effort worth their while – give them free product or another gift of some real, perceived value in return for the efforts.
  • Don’t forget to use Sales 101.  Understand what’s important to the customer and how they plan on testing the product.  If there are known issues that are in the process of being resolved, disclose them and ask the customer to test these areas at a later date.  Set clear expectations about what the new product is supposed to do and how it’s supposed to do it.  If the customer expects something that they don’t get, there will be a problem.
  • Finally, as new customers run into problems, jump all over them fast.  If the problems aren’t too severe, you can blow them away with your support.  Sometimes, great support will overcome some of the issues that occur when bugs are encountered.

Remember, there are always bugs.  There are the ones you find and the ones you don’t (some of these being later discovered by your customers).  The more effort you put into loading up the first category, the easier it will be to sell your product (duh).  Once a customer has adopted your product, it’s much easier to make them happy and to work around issues they encounter.  You’ll never get the opportunity to to this, though, if they haven’t become a customer in the first place.

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 July 22nd, 2007  
 Will  
 Management, Selling  
   
 2 Comments
Jul
20

Brainstorming – Don’t Shoot the Messenger too Quickly

A long time ago I read a book about group brainstorming – using group-think to solve problems and uncover new ideas and directions.  I don’t remember the book or much that was in it, as is the case for the vast majority of business how-to books that I’ve read.  My one take-away, though, was the concept of accepting all input during a brainstorming session without passing judgement on anything said by anyone.

Yeah, this is hardly a breakthrough when you think about it.  As soon as you shoot down one idea, others are afraid that their idea will be similarly criticized and they clam up.  This then sets off a domino effect of fewer ideas with even fewer add-on ideas which, in turn, completely kills any opportunity for the group to chain off the thoughts of others to come up with new or modified concepts. 

As this un-remembered book suggested, it’s critical for the leader to just shut up, giving every idea its due (always a good idea to write it down on a white board of something to openly signify its value) and encourage everyone else to contribute, learn and grow.  Gee, this idea of the leader shutting up at times comes up frequently.  It’s too bad I suck at it.

As a flawed leader, I’ve made the mistake of shooting down ideas too quickly too often.  As my kids point out today, even when I remain quiet, my face contorts in strange ways clearly indicating how incredibly stupid I think what I’m hearing is.  So, even when I actually dig deep inside and make myself shut up, I really don’t hold back at all.  My face gives away everything.

This might even be acceptable if, in fact, all the ideas I shoot down were actually bad ideas.  The problem is that they often are not bad ideas at all.  My reaction is based on my initial thinking about what has been proposed or, sometimes, just my initial understanding of it.  Once I think it through, I often warm up to the idea.  Although, by that time, I’ve usually squelched the discussion and killed any upside to the brainstorming going on.

You get the idea . . . When you’re in a leadership role during any type of brainstorming, it’s really important to sit back, smile and treat every idea like it was your own.  Even better, like it was from someone that you would listen to even if they were saying something completely wacky (think Albert Einstein or Mahatma Gandhi).  Encourage people to put forward the most preposterous idea possible and for others to add to those ideas.  The minute you put up a wall, the traffic of new ideas will slow to a crawl and, eventually, disappear.

Unless you know everything there is to know (I doubt it), then you and the organization you run will be better off with as many ideas floating around as possible.  After all, you still can think they’re stupid and shut them down later <g>.

 July 20th, 2007  
 Will  
 Leadership  
   
 10 Comments
Jul
20

Tour de France Mashup

While looking for some information about the Tour yesterday (other than controversy about doping, it’s really difficult to get decent information about the Tour de France in English), I stumbled across this great website.  It’s a mashup that superimposes today’s TDF stage on a Google map, adds a chart of the elevation of the stage, then, and this is the cool part, shows various riders on the route with their live heart rate, speed, power output and cadence.  Apparently, some riders/teams are broadcasting their GPS coordinates with their ride data for the world to consume.

There aren’t loads of riders involved, but it’s cool to see the data for the ones that are.  Their low heart rates at any speed make me feel even less significant as a bike rider.

The data is only live, so once the day’s stage is over, the site just shows the route.  Worth checking out . . .

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 July 20th, 2007  
 Will  
 Cycling  
   
 Comments Off on Tour de France Mashup
Jul
18

How to Manage a Layoff

All companies, yup that includes the successful ones, eventually have some form of layoff.  Before you go ballistic on me, let’s first define a layoff.  According to Wikipedia, a layoff is:

the termination of employment of an employee or (more commonly) a group of employees for business reasons, such as the decision that certain positions are no longer necessary. Originally the term “layoff” referred specifically to a temporary interruption in work, as when factory work cyclically falls off. However, the term has long been applied also to the permanent elimination of positions as a cost-cutting measure (or for other reasons).”

So, a number of employees (one or more) that are terminated for larger business decisions as opposed to for poor individual performance is a layoff.  Even successful companies at times make decisions to get out of a business or change a focus that results in the laying off of some employees.  Similarly, an acquisition of another company with some degree of overlap of people can necessitate a layoff of redundant people after the merger.

More likely, of course, are layoffs that are the result of a downturn in business.  Here again, terminations are not related to individual performance (other than, perhaps, the decision to lay off one person instead of another), but are a result of a business restructuring required to help the company deal with its financial difficulties or other current crappy situation.

A layoff has nothing to do with firing employees, though.  I frequently talk to CEOs or other high-level managers who say that they are laying off people when they are really firing them.  In my opinion, these people are less confused about the terms than they are in hiding behind the softer term, layoff.  They think it sounds better to the people being fired as well as those who remain.  When somebody isn’t cutting it and you’ve done your best to make it work, you’re firing them.  Period.  Call it what it is.  Everyone is happier with clean, honest straightforward messages in the end.  ’nuff said.

If layoffs are inevitable, then it’s critical that strong leaders and managers know how to do them.  As with firings, in the broad business scope, it’s critical that you optimize the management of any layoff so that your business or organization is set up to be successful moving forward.  That means thinking about the people and the organizational situation left after the layoff as much as, if not more, than the people being laid off.

With that in mind, here are my 9 guidelines on how to manage a layoff, in no particular order:

  • Do it quickly – nothing will drain the life out of an organization faster than mass fear of job loss.  Rumors are uncontrollable and people pick up on small signals incredibly well.  While it’s very important to make sure you spend the time to get a good action plan in place, don’t let the time between a decision to do a layoff and the execution of it extend longer than it absolutely has to.  As a corollary to this one, avoid sending up red flags before you’re ready.  The rumor mill is powerful, there’s no need to help it along.
  • Do it once – this is a mistake I see made all the time.  A layoff is done in stages because management: is afraid that they’re cutting too deep; know they’ll need some folks to complete their current tasks before they’re laid off; miscalculate the savings they’ll get from the layoff; or, is just wimpy.  Not completing a layoff in one pass will kill the productivity of those who remain.  They’ll wonder if they’ll be in some subsequent round, even if none is planned.  They won’t believe it’s really over until loads of time has passed without incident or they’ve left the company.
  • Cut deep – you may think that you’re a spreadsheet wizard who can run detailed sensitivity analyses indicating the precise range of the financial impact of your layoff.  Trust me, you can’t.  People who you thought would stay will quit; you’ll have legal fees that you didn’t expect; there will be a severance issue that you didn’t even consider; or, one of 10,000 other unpredictable things will happen.  Leave yourself some room, cut more people than you think you need to.  You’ll be happy that you did when it’s all said and done.
  • Plan ahead – Decide how you’re going to handle the termination details – have any severance, benefits, insurance, outplacement service offerings or reference policy well documented ahead of time (can you afford any of these?).  Plan for and know exactly how long each employee should stay around before they are laid off (generally speaking, people should be walked out the door the day the layoff is announced).  Have the complete package (written) ready to hand to the employee when they are told they are being laid off.  Have a script ready if more than one manager is laying people off.  Consistency is important.
  • Cover your ass legally – while tight cash may be the issue that led to your layoff, getting some legal advice if the layoff is in any way extensive might be a good idea.  As you likely already know, there are no bounds to the legal problems that employee matters can bring about.  Run your plans by your lawyer at least for a sanity check.  It’s money well spent.
  • Do it in person – as absurd as this sounds, you’d be surprised at how often people are laid off by email or on the phone.  The manager of each person being laid off should take the employee aside, explain what is happening and what benefits are part of the layoff.  If a manager is laying off multiple employees, they need to balance the need to spend time with each one, with the fact that everyone else in the group is waiting to see if they’re next.  So, be kind, but be clear and to the point.  Don’t beat around the bush.  You don’t have time.
  • Communicate – Make it clear to everyone (those being laid off and those remaining) why it happened and what has been done or is being done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Emphasize that the layoff as just witnessed is OVER and that no one else will be laid off because of the current situation (new situations may, of course, come up).  Stand up and take responsibility if poor decision-making or a specific strategic choice led to the current situation.  Be clear – nothing complex.  Explain why those being laid off were selected for the layoff instead of those remaining.  Be respectful of those departing and thank them for their efforts, they are not being laid off as a result of anything they did, after all.  Be ready to meet with each person you manage one-on-one in order to allay any fears or address any concerns.
  • Learn from it – it’s unlikely that you planned for the situation to come about.   Was it a business issue you should have predicted?  A change in the marketplace that you should have flagged?  Had you grown too fat?  Costs gone out of control?  Change in strategy or focus?  Whatever.  Understand it now so that you can avoid the situation in the future.
  • Keep communicating – don’t stop communicating with employees left after the layoff just because the layoff is over.  They need to know why they won’t be subject to similar mistakes or problems in the future.  Everyone wants to work for a winner.  You need to tell them why they are going to be successful right where they are.  Don’t give false reassurances, though, tell it like it is.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sell the positive future prospects for the company.  Just don’t candy-coat the current situation.

I wish I could say that I never had any substantial layoffs in companies that I’ve run, but truth be told, I’ve had to do it more than once.  I’ve also made most of the mistakes above.  It’s certainly not easy and there are almost an infinite number of ways that the situation can get out of hand quickly.  If you use the guidelines above, though, you have a better shot of avoiding the case where the situation gets totally beyond control.

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 July 18th, 2007  
 Will  
 Management  
   
 14 Comments
Jul
14

The Pan-Mass Challenge

Pan Mass Challenge Route

The Pan-Massachusetts Challenge (PMC) is a charitable, 2-day bike ride across the state of Massachusetts that raises money for cancer research and treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through its Jimmy Fund.  The ride was the first fundraising bike-a-thon in the country, starting in 1980.  Since then, over 42,000 riders and 25,000 support volunteers have made it one of the largest and most successful athletic charitable events in the world.  Last year, 99% of the $27M raised was given to the charity (making up 50% of the Jimmy Fund’s annual revenue) with only 1% used to support the massive event.  This year’s ride will take place on August 4th and 5th with 4,800 riders and 2,500 support volunteers along its several routes.  There are already 165,000 donors and rider sponsors.  This year represents my third time making this cycling trek in my home state.

Now onto the shameless sponsorship request . . .

As readers of this blog know, this type of post is highly unusual for me.  I even feel a bit skittish about posting such a request, like I breaking some unwritten blogging rule.PMC-Logo  I guess I feel like this situation is a bit different – I’d like to think about it as presenting an opportunity.  If you’re like me, the charitable donations you make are often driven by an event, request or because it’s the right time of year.  While I consider myself a relatively generous donor to many causes, sometimes I still need a kick in the pants to remember to write the check.  Of course, each of us has a different capacity and ability to donate to charities and we all have our favorite ones.  If giving for cancer care and research are on your list this year and you haven’t had the opportunity to give through another channel, please consider this your kick in the pants.  I’d appreciate your support and donation for my ride across Massachusetts this year.  Supporting me isn’t what’s important of course.  Supporting a worthy cause like cancer care and research and a great organization like the Jimmy Fund is.  So, sponsorship of my ride is less important than sponsorship of these organizations and efforts.

And here’s the tear-jerker story to compel you to donate . . .

The PMC is a fun and athletically challenging event (especially as my old legs lose their power), which becomes more emotionally meaningful for me each year I do it – this will be my third year.  There’s nothing quite like the experience of reaching back and trying to find the energy to climb a hill 90 miles into the ride when you spot a lone kid on the side of the road holding a sign that says: “because of you, I still have my daddy.”  All the pain and weariness of the ride immediately drains from your body and the next mile takes on a whole new meaning – although with the added challenge of struggling to hold back tears.

If you’re interested in donating to Dana Farber and this seems like a reasonable way of doing it, you can do it online at this web page.  My PMC Gift ID is: wh0028 if you choose to sponsor me.  Of course, you can make the donation directly to Dana Farber if you prefer.

No obligation and donations can be made anonymously, if you prefer.  Thanks for even reading this far and if you choose to donate, thanks in advance for your support.

 July 14th, 2007  
 Will  
 Cycling  
   
 7 Comments
Jul
14

Throwback Quote of the Day

My father was born in 1928 and will turn 80 next January.  Like many of his generation, he’s struggled a bit to adopt all the new technology that’s been thrown at him over the years, but he’s made a pretty good attempt.  Email and cell phones have mostly made it into the mix, but IM, text messaging and Facebook will probably never be part his life.

I often wonder what it’s like to have lived for most of the 20th century.  Not so much for the sheer number of changes that took place during the century, but for their magnitude.  My feeling is that the rate of change is higher now, but most changes are of a much lower magnitude than in the last 100 years.  For the most part, modern changes tend to be more incremental. 

Sometimes, this becomes evident in things my father reflects on or inadvertently says.  A few days ago, I gave him a call (on his cell phone, which I’m still surprised he even owns) and he said:

Can I call you right back?  I’m on a long distance call.”

A long distance call . . . I can even remember back in the 60s, when I was a kid, thinking that long distance calls were for times when bad news had to be conveyed, because it was the only time we could justify the cost hurdle.  The whole idea that a long distance call is any different from a local call is almost a forgotten concept now that a call is virtually transparent and is measured and billed in time units, not distance.

He said it so naturally, it took me a minute to understand what was so weird about the statement when considered in modern terms.  If I were a better listener, I bet more of these gems would become obvious to me.

 July 14th, 2007  
 Will  
 Misc Thoughts  
   
 6 Comments