The coffee and wine school of innovation.

Here’s one for debate around a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

Most innovation occurs when creative people are relaxed and thinking about other things.  Coffee, wine, quiet time, showers…

How it occurs in large companies…

We all can picture the corporate R&D lab with tens of scientists working at white boards, or over computer models, or with prototypes.  And we picture programmers working at their workstations or on their portable notebooks creating great new code.

But all those people are following the flash of inspiration that started their activity, and it is that flash we seek to reproduce again and again in a successful enterprise.

There’s an advantage to smaller, more agile creative organizations, even if it is an organization of one person.

This leads us back to coffee and wine, and showers, and quiet time.

[Email readers, continue here…]   Given that we are looking for that flash of inspiration that starts us down the path of innovation through the hard work of R&D, maybe we should reengineer our thinking about allocation of time for our most creative resources, including ourselves.  Think like we are agile to the extreme. Imagine no barriers to the creation of our dream.  Wouldn’t that be empowering and productive?

But there are times when creativity comes under pressure.

Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.  But whole leaps into new groundbreaking areas of innovation most often come from times of reflection, when the mind is clear to dream ahead, to think without interruption.

So, there are those who subscribe to the coffee and wine school and encourage creative thinkers to find extra time in the early mornings or evenings to free the mind to innovate, to find the spark that could propel a company forward.  As a part of a larger group or by yourself, this planned time for creative thinking is important to the successful outcome of a creative project.

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Posted in Finding your ideal niche, Growth!, Positioning | 1 Comment

Reward success and failure. Punish only inaction.

Reward failure? 

That may be a difficult concept for an executive. And there are limits of course. We wouldn’t reward a failure to follow laws, or protect lives, or deliberate endangerment of the company or its people.

There are “good” failures.

But should we reward a research team that fails for the fourth time to find the solution to a nagging problem – on the way to a new product?  What if those failures are commonplace?   Where do we draw the line?  We know that Edison tried a thousand types of material before finding tungsten for the core of the light bulb.  If he had been a research employee reporting to you, at what point would you have pulled the plug on the project, or become disillusioned with the person?

Relate this to the culture of your company.

The culture of the company you grow is very much influenced by your actions in rewarding or punishing employees or whole departments. And the best companies seem to be those that are motivated from the top to push limits within reason to find better ways to do things, to create products, to expand the market.  The CEO must realize that most such efforts lead to a dead end or will fail outright.

Here’s (another) personal story…

[Email readers, continue here…]   I was once in the record business.  Speak about insanity. Only two percent of all records released broke even.  Of course, the major hits paid for thousands of misses.  In venture capital, the conventional wisdom is that one in

(Sometimes you miss the goal.)

ten investments will more than pay for the complete loss of half of those ten investments.  Yet investors reward the VC’s with a track record of one in ten, and record companies still churn out a reduced number of recordings, knowing that a great majority will fail to break even.

Let’s finish with a question for you?

So, where does the learned, best of breed CEO or manager step in to administer punishment?  As the headline infers, a visionary, proactive leader should not be able to stand by and condone inaction.  That is not only a waste of corporate assets, but the fixed overhead eaten by the inactive period keeps draining the cash and time resources of the corporation with nothing to show for it.  Wouldn’t you rather dissect the reasons for a failure and move forward, than have nothing to show for time and money spent in wasted fixed overhead?

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Posted in Depending upon others, Surrounding yourself with talent | 3 Comments

Have you accidentally created a “power vacuum?”

Here’s a question to help you decide if you’re guilty.

How many times have you heard someone say, “Let’s do it now and ask permission later?” Have you done it in front of your cohort?  That’s a common practice in companies where there is a barrier between levels in the chain of command, or lack of communication between people who work together or even for you as a leader.  That statement represents a failing at some point in the delegation or communication chain, usually by a person at the upper level of management, and should be taken as a warning that there is a problem greater than the issue handled at the moment.

Large companies or small: there’s a difference here.

I’ve worked with organizations that are so large that extensive paperwork is required to obtain approvals to accept customer orders, make any purchases of any size, or any commitment of resources.  In every case, people try to stretch those restrictions in as many ways as possible to get around the time taken to complete forms and who expect to be lost in waiting for approvals.  It’s the “order prevention department” syndrome.

Why do subordinates do this knowingly?

Incomplete delegation of responsibilities, or controls that are too tight, both lead to a rationale for subordinates to circumvent the system.  The worst thing about this is that the people most likely to do this are those most entrepreneurial and creative in doing their jobs.  Conversely, those most likely to fall back and seek guidance, clarification and direction are those most subservient and least creative.

How about those who just assume power in a vacuum?

[Email readers, continue here…]   Middle managers sometimes identify those who assume power as non-conformists or even troublemakers. It is rare to ever see a dialog come out of such an event that leads to better defined delegation of responsibilities, removal of roadblocks, or relaxation of overly restrictive rules.

And the usual result?

More often such actions lead to reprimands without analysis of the underlying general cause.  And occasionally, the very creative, driven individuals you would otherwise celebrate are made candidates for elimination instead of catalysts for change.

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Posted in Finding your ideal niche, Surrounding yourself with talent | 1 Comment

A tale of two CEO’s and the management of pain.

This is the tale of two CEOs, one of them unfortunately….me.  

It’s a story of how people handle unusual situations when selling to the top – an executive of a prospective customer.  And the stories couldn’t be more different.

First, my friend’s story…

Recently a CEO friend told me her story of a dinner including her director of business development and an executive of a major company, a candidate for a large sale.  As the dinner progressed, the prospect executive started, and then continued to excuse himself from the table, looking paler each time.  After several of these, upon his return, my CEO friend asked him if everything was OK.  He responded, like most of us would, that all was OK, and that he was having a bit of trouble breathing, would probably have to leave the dinner early, and drive home.

What would you do in this situation?

My CEO friend took one more look at the increasingly pale executive and went into decision mode.  “No, you aren’t fine,” she stated. “Give me your car keys; we’re going to the hospital.”  He reluctantly acquiesced, and she tended to him as her director drove all three to the hospital.  She had him call his wife on the way to meet them at the hospital.  As they waited in the emergency room, after more episodes, his breathing finally became easier, and by the time the doctor saw them, he could find nothing of worry, ruling out stroke or heart attack.

Being responsive to emergencies sometimes requires creative thinking.

[Email readers, continue here…]   Our CEO then returned to the restaurant and met with the chef to have him list all the ingredients from the meal the executive was eating.  The problem was, as you guessed, an undiscovered food allergy, with a possible ambulance ride averted and a happy ending.   The executive even tells the story now that the CEO may have saved his life, because he was unwilling to own up to the fact that his breathing was so very difficult.

Now, I would not have been so fast to take charge.

Maybe it’s a guy thing.  I would have been thinking about the sales relationship and the sale, and would probably have let the guy drive home, acknowledging his discomfort, and ending the dinner early.

This leads me to my story. 

Years ago, I was in the process of selling a software system worth more than $100,000 to a well-known baseball hero who owned his namesake hotel in St. Louis.  (His first name was Stan, for you baseball trivia fans.) Flying on the red eye to make a morning appointment, his hotel bus driver dropped me off in the dark a few feet beyond the lighted portico. I stepped off the van into… a recently dug pit about two feet deep and broke my foot in the fall.  What pain!  I tried to sleep in the room they gave me and managed to make it to the 10:00 AM meeting with the very well-known sports figure and sales candidate.  He saw me drag my leg into the conference room, made no comment, but asked if I would like a tour of the hotel.  “Of course,” I said, ignoring the pain and dragging my foot the entire way through the tour.

Well, I didn’t make the sale. 

And I didn’t sue the hotel.  I was in selling mode and nothing was going to detract from my focus or reputation.  I sure was not admitting to the problem or seeking recourse for the obvious flagrant error by the hotel in not marking the excavation.

Who was right? 

Well, I should have led the meeting with my story of woe to protect others.  The other CEO in this two-CEO story took charge, and made a friend of both the potential customer and his spouse, who she called as they drove to the hospital.

Is it a guy thing?  Is it conditioning us to put things in perspective regardless of the personal outcome, including a lost sale?  I think about these two examples now and have concluded that there are some traits of a great CEO that cannot be learned easily.  Putting others above self and sacrificing a short-term goal is not easy for a type ‘A’ driven entrepreneur when the stakes are high. But it is the right thing to do.

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Posted in Depending upon others, General, Protecting the business | 1 Comment

Are you killing innovation in your company?

First, let’s recognize the problem.

Here’s one for executives of any company with next generation products in mind.  As your business grows more complex and there are more employees to manage and more customers to care for, slowly you will notice that more and more time of your chief innovation officer or system architect or R&D department is spent focused upon enhancements in response to needs of the user base.

Don’t draw your visionary resources into the incremental fight.

The company’s most valuable technical visionary, the person tasked with staying out in front of new technologies, developing the next generation of new products, and thinking “a mile above the box” is often drawn into working on projects that are incremental to the product and to the existing business.  It is not uncommon to hear that they will approach you and state that their work has become more boring, and that there is no time left for creative thinking or next generation experimentation and development.  That’s one scenario.

Do you have a “quiet genius” staffed in the wrong place?

In many companies, there are quiet geniuses, wanting to work on projects outside of the daily focus of the department or company.  Managers sometimes view this behavior as non-strategic or wasteful, and even sometimes will isolate or reject these outside thinkers outright.

…And the most difficult: starting a new project from scratch.

[Email readers, continue here…]   Or finally, you may want to start a project using the next generation of tools to produce an entirely new product – but your development resources are all tied up with projects to enhance existing products.  Whichever of the three scenarios may apply to you, it is a red flag for your future if you condone the status quo and allow the company to devote all its resources to existing products and simple enhancements.

The danger in allowing lack of challenges for employees.

Your best creative thinkers will leave you, looking for more challenges than you can offer.  Your competitors may already be working on the next generation of product, as you remain stuck in the mud, even if focused upon serving the customer base with outstanding service and rapid feature rollout.

So, what is your strategic priority?

It is up to you to decide if research and development for advanced or next generation products is a strategic priority for you and your company.  If so, you have a duty to protect these future-focused developers or architects, removing or reducing the pressure of reactionary development work, and isolating them in a space that prevents constant interruption by others focused upon day-to-day work.

Technology companies are prime targets for this problem. 

Every six to ten years, there is an entirely new platform to focus upon for the next generation of products.  Just think of the computer and software fields.  First there were mainframes, followed by minicomputers, then client-server systems, then peer-to-peer networks, then the Internet, mobile devices, cloud computing, and now mesh networks.  Each generation requires new tools, rewrites of software, creation of new user interfaces.

Lessons from past companies that “forgot” to innovate.

And in each generation, there are dominant players from the past generation that fade as new companies not inhibited by the demands of their user base leap beyond the last generation’s leaders with new systems for the new age.  Leading companies of significant size are sometimes made irrelevant over time, or pivot into service organizations, or absorbed into other companies that are growing next generation products.

What happened to Wang, Sperry-Univac, Burroughs-Unisys, DEC, RCA, and hundreds of early generation leaders?  Their CEOs did not provide enough of a safe environment and enough resources to their creative geniuses to make the leap into that next generation.

It is a cost of doing business that you cannot ignore.  Not only providing resources for next generation development but protecting the people performing those development tasks should be one of your strategic priorities.

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Posted in Finding your ideal niche, Growth! | 1 Comment

Why would you ever “fire yourself?”

To start: “new source of energy” and “new ideas.”

When a new CEO or manager is hired into a company, for a while lots of energy flows from the top and new ideas seem to be generated daily.  It is one reason not to fear the unknown when upper-level management long in place turns over, often leaving most everyone worried about the future of the company and for their own prospects.

Even the best of us falls into a routine in our jobs. 

It is human nature to do so, but it is not a sign of our best efforts.  We recall the enthusiasm we had for the job earlier, how we couldn’t wait to get to work, or initiate a new plan, or share a new idea.  We can be that person again.  It just takes a bit of effort to change our mindset.

We may run out of fresh ideas after a time; most of us do.  But there are sources of great ideas right next to us in our own company, or available to us from fellow CEOs, or from industry consultants with a broader view of the landscape, uninhibited by our need to meet daily obligations.

A favorite story about such a CEO

[Email readers, continue here…]   One of my most respected CEO friends arrived at his monthly CEO roundtable meeting years ago and announced that he had just fired himself.  He had reconfigured the company, delegating many of his previous responsibilities, and rehired himself in a new position more strategic to the company, retaining the CEO title.  It was an attitude adjustment, self-initiated. He credits that effort as the start of his company’s real growth, resulting in a great public company, dominant in his field.

Creating a new perspective to guide the future

Another CEO described how he drove to work each Monday morning forcing himself to think of what he would do if he were a newly hired CEO, fresh on the job that day.  He surprised himself with his many fresh ideas, just with that change of perspective.

However you do it, refresh yourself.  Be that new CEO – but with all the knowledge and skills you already have as a head start.

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Posted in General | 2 Comments

Can you negotiate without emotion?

Here’s the problem.

Negotiating an agreement, especially one that involves personal gain, is tough for the person personally involved.  There is too much to lose to be objective, to be willing to walk when terms go upside down.

What if the negotiation is personally important?

It is my experience that you should have an expert negotiator with you or even in your place, whether from your board or an employee or outside professional such as an attorney – when the issue is personal.

An example you might recognize

Think of buying a car, for example. If you are looking for your spouse or offspring, it is probable that they’ve picked out the perfect car and are ready to take it off the dealer’s hands.  Assuming that you are the elected or self-assigned negotiator, the last thing you want is to have them in the room while you haggle over price.  Advantage other side.

Using an impartial negotiator:

Negotiating on behalf of business associates too personally involved in a transaction: it’s a role I’ve played tens of times over the years. There are the several that were disengagements between partners threatening to sue each other for perceived wrongs.  There’s the sale of a company, where as a board member, I asked the CEO to name his asking price and then go home and wait the result.   There’s the disengagement with an angry employee threating to sue the company.

Sometimes the issues are just too emotional.

[Email readers, continue here…]  All of the above issues are personal to a CEO, founder or entrepreneur.  And all of them draw that person emotionally into making decisions that cannot easily be objective, or into finding solutions that are mutually acceptable without the torture of constant re-explanation of opposing positions.

Some solutions to consider…

A smart lawyer, they say, should never represent himself.  And yet, lawyers are trained in the art of negotiation.  You should be careful not to miss the point of that admonition.

My oldest son learned to accompany me, but keep a deadpan look on his face as I negotiated for his ideal car, completing the purchase in minutes.  The CEO described above endorsed his company selling for twice his asking price, after his absence helped the negotiation to be completed within an hour.  The partnership described above dissolved without suit after a personal visit by the negotiator without the first partner present resulted in settlement within an hour.  The employee that I just described accepted a severance check in trade for a release, without the emotion of arguing out old issues between employee and employer.

Are you too emotionally involved in a decision?  Consider the advice lawyers give to each other and find a surrogate to argue your case.

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Posted in General, Protecting the business, Surrounding yourself with talent | Leave a comment

The shocking truth about employee loyalty

How we often handle employment issues today.

When we accept the work commitment from a person we hire, we make a pact with the new employee that often stops at agreeing to pay for service rendered and to provide a safe working environment.

There should be more than that. 

With some people you hire, you know you are just renting their services as they pass through your organization, aimed at a higher calling.  Others want to know that they are signing on to a career, not a job, and expect to move up within the ranks or on to a larger company that can accommodate their goals.

A recent statistic I saw surprised me.

The average new college graduate today will work thirteen jobs in his or her career, in an average of five different fields.  Ouch!  What happened to a job for life?  How can employers expect complete loyalty if there is no clear upward path to the top for the best new hire?

Can there be a trusted bond between employee-employer?

[Email readers, continue here…]   The answer coming from the best of breed in corporate personnel management is to form a trusted bond with each employee, helping that person to manage their career within and even preparing to follow our company experience.  If a superstar agrees to work for you for a period while learning the ropes to move to a better job elsewhere, assuming that there is candor in the communication by the employee and a level of trust in and by the employer, it is perfectly proper to offer to help that employee succeed. The pact between employee and employer is that the employee gives the best possible service to the company, in return for the company helping the employee to grow in, and perhaps beyond the position.

So, is this a one-sided negotiation?

Especially with young entrepreneurial CEOs, it feels to them like an employee stick up.  “Give me your money, and I will work only until I find a better job.”  And that attitude might be warranted if the employee just performs to the minimum required level, marking time to the next opportunity.  But if the person has skills and knowledge that the company needs, there is the basis for a fair trade of talent and time for a later organized, positive move to the next level  perhaps outside of the company.

The difficult but enlightened view

With that openly positive corporate attitude, you can celebrate the growth of the employee with a party as the person graduates, instead of either feeling anger when an employee resigns with short notice or being suspicious that the employee will leave with trade secrets in tow.  Certainly, other employees will see the supportive behavior, understand the company’s contribution to the career of this upwardly mobile employee, and celebrate not only the graduation event but the great culture of the company itself.

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Posted in Depending upon others, Surrounding yourself with talent | 1 Comment

Do you tell someone “WHY” along with “WHAT?”

How to get more performance from your directives

Empowering your direct reports with the reasons for your orders gives them incentive to act, motivation to accept authority, and purpose behind action.  I try to teach this with the simple phrase that is the headline of this insight.

Wouldn’t you want to know “why” if you thought an order illogical?

Think of the last time someone above you in your business or personal life gave you an order to do something that seemed either illogical or of low priority – to you.  If you accepted the authority of the person giving you the order, you just performed the task, probably either wondering if that person was nuts or whether you just didn’t understand the reason for the task.

How would you respond with more information?

What if that person had told you why it was important to be done, in clear terms that related to that person’s priorities?  Wouldn’t you be more prepared to perform the task knowing the context?

Here’s an example you will recognize from your life

[Email readers, continue here…]  I recently spoke with an old friend who is in sales.  He lamented the fact that his boss recently layered several more sales reports on him to complete each week, reducing his selling efficiency.  How many times have we heard this complaint, especially from sales people?  I suggested that he go back to his boss and explain that it would be more than just helpful to know why these new reports are needed, that even though the salesman has no need to know, it would certainly make doing the work less of a chore.  And by the way, I offered, if the boss could not explain why, there might be an opening to advance the argument that the trade in time between completing the new report and reduced sales call time might be worth a revisit of the order.

Would this weed out the unnecessary or ill-thought requests?

How many tasks, reports, and rules hang around the necks of people throughout a more mature organization, which remain as “what” without anyone remembering “why?”   It is probably as effective a tool for the manager as for the recipient of the order, to explain why when telling what to do.

Your employees or even your family members will appreciate the small extra effort, better understand the reason behind the request, and perform the act with more enthusiasm.  What’s not to like about that?

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Posted in Depending upon others, Surrounding yourself with talent | 3 Comments

Are you being watched at work?

Your past and present experiences

Ever had a manager above you who said one thing and did another?  At least once?  Or in a pattern of repeats?  Well, you’re not alone.  Did you think less of that person for it?  Would you follow that manager to the ends of the earth?  Well, almost everyone has had multiple such experiences with a senior manager.  And most people think less of that person than before.

On the other hand…

On the other hand, think of the professional you most admire.  Do you know of any times that person has made promises to you and missed on delivering them?  The difference comes down to trust and respect.  We lose both when we catch someone, especially someone above us, acting differently than his or her self-proclaimed rules, or even violating company rules.

Does rank really have its privileges?

It is one of the most vital elements of good management – restraining oneself when rank would ordinarily grant special privilege, and instead acting as one would expect a subordinate to act.

Examples can seem surprisingly insignificant

[Email readers, continue here…]    Black and white examples include taking supplies home, using company time to perform personal duties (if not permitted), and even traveling business class at company expense on short trips.  Larger and more important examples involve direct promises that are broken, such as review dates with implied raises, or promised follow-through on an issue of great urgency to person receiving the promise.

Just don’t take those small liberties

Everything you do as a manager is watched by one or many.  The very culture of the enterprise is shaken when someone in power gets away with bending or breaking the rules expected to be adhered to by all.  Why have rules, or a company handbook, or new employee orientation sessions if the actions don’t match the words?

And once violated, it is almost impossible to retract the action.  That should make us think twice before taking small liberties.

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Posted in Depending upon others, Surrounding yourself with talent | 1 Comment