Over the last year I have struggled with sharing personal info on this blog as well as business related themes. I can be a pretty transparent person in both my business and my personal life and for some people I might be sharing too much information that they don’t care about. I know that some people care about one topic, some people care about the other, and some people (bless you!) care about both.
I have successfully copied ALL business related posts to my consulting company’s blog – Two Kayaks Blog. Going forward, all topics related to management, running a business etc. will be posted on that site. If you want to see travel pictures, garden pictures and learn more about the research that I have done on diet, exercise, and household renovations you will want to keep reading here.
Thank you all for sticking with me for all these years!
Just a heads up that I am currently working on a revamp of this site. I’ll continue to post personal observations here, but I will be moving / copying all of the business related info to my blog over at http://www.twokayaks.com as I continue to update that site. Going forward, that’s where you’ll find business topics if you’re mostly interested in those. I didn’t like that this blog was turning into a strange mix of “stuff” and that it was getting harder and harder to find business relevant topics.
This past weekend at the beach once again we were faced with a pigeon problem. The pigeons used to be our neighbor’s problem, but they have migrated over to our place over the last year. It isn’t pleasant, they make a stinky mess. Why are pigeons at the beach anyway? Don’t they belong in Trafalgar Square in London?
A few years ago we watched our neighbors battle the roosting pigeons and laughed. Their house has (ummm, had) a lot of little nooks and crannies under eaves that were perfect perches for a pigeon or two and their little nest. Our place didn’t have the amenities that they provided. Slowly but surely the neighbors had carpentry work done to deter their feathered squatters. They also acquired a couple of little dogs that like to bark at intruders. I’m sure that helped expedite the move.
Now, the pigeons are roosting at our house. Last year we put up bird netting to block the holes they used. They’ve managed to wiggle past that. This year, we moved on to aluminum screening. We’ll see. I hope we don’t have to resort to carpentry. I suspect we might, but we keep trying to fix the problem as cheaply and as quickly as possible. I’m getting sick of the mess on my deck.
There are a lot of “pigeon problems” in business.
- Competitors… just like neighbors, they can turn a pigeon problem into your problem. A well timed release can make the press or your customers poop all over your product. Sometimes a media darling can make your life very difficult as you’re always asked when you’ll be able to match their features.
- Customers… sometimes they ARE the pigeon problem. There are customers that you want to hold on to, and there are customers that you want to fire. You know the ones – they cost 10 times as much as a comparable firm in support and maintenance costs. They keep coming back for more. Over the long term you keep having to make concessions (repairs) to keep them happy.
- Employees…if they are doing a half-assed job. I hope this isn’t a reflection on our pigeon wrangling techniques, but fix it once, and fix it well. Don’t just cobble it together or the pigeons will come back – in software pigeons can be bugs and they can be performance problems.
Every now and then I notice that my weight has gone up by 2 or 3 pounds. This usually happens after a vacation or the holidays. Unfortunately it never wants to go back down on its own, so I figure that it’s time for a tuneup. The best way to do a tuneup is to do a diagnostic to figure out what is going on. Right now I’m in the middle of a tuneup and its not been a lot of fun, but I know I can do better.
First off, I take a look at my exercise program and determine if I’ve been lazy. Am I skipping the hardest exercises? Have I reduced the number of days I lift or my reps or weights because I’m not feeling strong? The worst for me is aerobic exercise. I hate it. Have I been avoiding running or getting on the stairmaster? Exercise is pretty easy for me to address. Food is always harder. I think this happens to everyone. You eat healthy but eventually you sneak in a cookie, or maybe some cheese, or some chips, or what about pizza and beer after volleyball? After a while you get used to that and you add something else. Before you know it, you’re eating a lot more calories. Time to start weighing and measuring. My favorite site for calorie monitoring is fitday.com. It’s free and easy to use and it makes it painfully apparent when I’ve been adding “snacks” to my diet.
This approach can be used on your business as well. Have you examined your costs lately? You don’t want to be cheap, but being frugal sure can help in this economic environment.
- One of the easiest ways to cut costs is to look at your broadband, telephone, and wireless expenses. If your contracts are up you will almost always be able to find a better deal. How do I know? I’ve done it. Actually I cut costs *and* I tripled the bandwidth of a company I worked for by doing a little comparison shopping.
- Does you company have multiple sites? Do you do a lot of travel between them? Do you have a corporate discount at a local hotel? Check out the competition. There is sure to be someone who wants to undercut your current deal.
- If you’re doing a lot of travel – don’t underestimate the savings you can obtain by planning in advance. Short notice flights will cost you dearly.
- If you’re really small do you negotiate with vendors to cut training costs? I’ve managed to secure free conference attendance for my team – something that should have cost $800+ a person. I’ve done this in two different companies.
- When you buy a new hardware or software platform do you ask for a discount? You’d be surprised what you can get if you just ask nicely. I’ve managed 10-35% discounts pretty easily by asking.
This isn’t rocket science, it’s just a matter of paying attention to what you’re doing. Whether is what you put in your mouth at meals or what you spend on an ongoing basis – the solution is the same.
Having held both product management and product architecture roles I’ve had a lot of experience determining product requirements. One thing that I’ve learned is that there are never enough hours in the day to implement everything that you’d really like to deliver to your customers in the time frame expected. Releasing a product can be compared to a 3 legged stool. You have the requirements or content, you have the amount of resources available (people and machines to do the work), and you have the amount of time it will take. One or more of these has to give in order to ship a product.
In this economic environment adding resources is unlikely – companies can’t afford to add to their payrolls. Many are reducing them. Adding too many resources really doesn’t help anyway. We’ve all seen the impact of too many new hires – everything actually takes longer to get done because of the ramp up time and the rework.
Typically a release is scheduled to occur at a set time as well. Many industries have large trade shows at which you want to demonstrate your product’s new features. Sometimes you have a large potential customer with a tight deadline and that will drive a release as well.
The one thing that is left is winnowing down the product features or content. How do you do that? Well, you have to prioritize and decide what is “good enough”. This can cause a lot of friction in organizations.
A lot of arguments over “good enough” are a symptom of a fragmented corporate culture. Disagreements about what is really necessary come about when the various teams involved have completely different understandings of what the customer’s needs and wants are. This usually happens when information coming directly from customers either wasn’t obtained at all (so the teams were making it all up on their own), or the information wasn’t disseminated throughout the organization in the form of priorities.
Questions to ask in prioritization:
- Is the functionality an integral part of the product as a whole? Is it a way to showcase the product and sell it? Is it the “hook” to get customers with?
- How frequently will the customer use this particular feature or bit of functionality? Always, frequently, often, sometimes, rarely, never(!!!)?
- If this feature fixes a problem, how likely will it be that the customer hits it in their use of the existing product?
- How difficult is it to access this feature or functionality? Number of screen traversals? Clicks? Custom programming or scripting? Does this make sense based on how often a customer will use it?
- Do competitors have this functionality? If so – is it a major selling point of their product? Is this a feature that the company wants to compete with? (or is this not an area of focus?)
- Are there standard performance requirements for the functionality that must be met? (UI, networking) If not, what will the customer tolerate? What will delight the customer? How hard will it be to delight them vs satisfy them?
- Is this a feature multiple customers are begging for? (might be a reason to give them an unpolished version for feedback)
- Is this a feature that your biggest and best customer (or potential customer) really wants?
- Is this a problem multiple customers are complaining about? (and how vehemently? Might be a reason for some extra polish)
Product roadmaps and feature prioritization are living documents. As you learn more about your customers and competitors your product has to change and grow. Make sure you concentrate on the right things first.
Thanks to The Mad Peacock’s Is It Safe? post for my inspiration today.
In small companies there isn’t a lot of focus on redundancy and reliability in personnel nor in infrastructure. How many people have worked for a company where the corporate e-mail system has gone down for an entire day – or more? I have. Has anyone had a failure in their source code control library that lost a day or more of work across an entire engineering organization? Yup – been there too. Have you ever had someone quit on the spur of the moment and someone else had to figure out what they were working on and what it did? Oh yeah.
Companies are running lean these days and that means that every penny is scrutinized. Unfortunately a lot of times decisions are made that can lead to catastrophic consequences. Consider this scenario – due to budgetary reasons you determine that an automated $40,000 backup and restore system is too expensive, so you have IT run scripts to backup critical data on a weekly basis. Near the end of a weeks worth of work, a critical server goes down. That means that every bit of work your 20 person engineering team introduced has to be mentally recalled, reimplemented, and retested. If your average loaded labor rate is $100k (very low) your average weekly cost for those engineers is ~$38,000. One outage would pay for the entire system – a system that could protect not only engineering data but other corporate data as well. You may argue that a server failure is unlikely, but do you really want to play Russian roulette with your information – especially if it is the intellectual property that makes your company valuable?
There are certain areas that should never be single points of failure.
- Product Development Repositories
- Gold Masters for Released Products
- Financial Records
- Customer Contracts
- Customer Support Issues
- Expertise in Crucial Systems Development
You may be thinking that I am focused on redundant data. That is key, but I believe that the last item in the list is the most important. It is expensive to have two people know exactly the same things – most times it just isn’t feasible. However, through careful dissemination of information through design and code reviews (and the associated documentation) you will be able to piece together developer intent and methodologies much faster than if someone comes in completely cold.
Remember to consider the opportunity cost of NOT protecting your resources, not just the outlay for the processes and tools to do it.
Well, here is day 5, on my What is Really Important? series. Once I finish this post I will be half way there. Good thing too – only a few days left before the end of the year and I promised myself I would get all of these posts written before January 1, 2010. I’ve got my work cut out for me.
There are all different types of collaboration and anti-collaboration (is that really a word? doubt it!) that can occur in a company. Some companies are really good at one kind, but really bad at the others. It is really unusual to find an organization that is good at all of them.
Here are the types of collaboration that I find to be very important.
- Team -This type of collaboration is the easiest to achieve. This typically is a group that is working on a project together. If these people aren’t working together well, nobody is going to succeed. Here it is clearly in one’s best interests to put the needs of the team first, because they strongly correlate with one’s own. Sometime you’ll get someone who tries to make their team look bad so that they come off looking like the hero who saved the project. That person is likely to get shunned and to get a reputation that they are difficult to work with over time.
- Hierarchical or Vertical -A lot of people forget this one, but it clearly exists. This is collaboration up and down the management chain. This is different than command and control where an order comes down from on high and everyone follows it. We all know that typically doesn’t work. People may follow it, but they won’t own it. Vertical collaboration has people at all levels of the organization taking responsibility for future direction and decision making and it requires a significant amount of trust.
- Cross Department or Horizontal - Most people think of this one when collaboration goes bad. This happens when you have team silos and instead of looking out for the organization as a whole, the teams are only looking out for themselves. This is insidious and hard to break, especially when team goals make up a large portion of a person’s performance review or bonus structure. Here you find managers hoarding resources (people, equipment, money) in order to have their team succeed. What typically allows these types of silos to be broken down is a set of corporate wide priorities. If your team is working on priority #4 and someone at priority #1 needs help – you better provide those resources so that the company as a whole is able to deliver.
- Cross Cultural or Geographic - In the world of offshoring and outsourcing this type of collaboration is necessary, but it also is fraught with issues. People are afraid to collaborate in this way because they fear losing their jobs. In many companies this is a definite possibility, but this is a management stance. Being able to collaborate with people from other cultures and in other time zones is a skill. It is a valuable one. One is always better off learning this skill and taking it elsewhere than worrying about losing one’s job because of it. As our economy grows more and more global this ability will be essential
- Customer - Working closely with customers is important to the livelihood of any company. If you don’t provide good customer support and your competitors do, you are dead. Key customers should also be asked for their input, this is key for prioritizing new product capabilities.
- Vendor - On the flip side, as a customer, you should strive to have a strong collaborative relationship with your key vendors. The bigger a customer that you are, the easier this is. However, many companies are looking to learn from their customers who are really pushing the envelope in how they are using the vendor’s products. Many times the most creative customers aren’t necessarily the biggest ones. Wouldn’t you like to drive requirements that you need into your vendor’s product development roadmap?
- Partner - Lastly, you must consider companies that aren’t necessarily your customers or your vendors but whose products are complimentary to your own. Is there a way that you can resell each others products to have a more compelling offering? Is there a way that you can integrate the inner workings of your products so that when they are used together it is seamless? This is called a partnership because it benefits both parties equally.
I thought that a great way to finish out the year would be to talk about my top 10 really important things in more detail. Today I’m going to hit on transparency. Some of the key concepts required to be a transparent leadership team include the following:
- Regular, consistent dissemination of information. Create a schedule of all hands or team meetings and stick to it! This needs to be done in good times as well as in bad. One of the worst things a management team can do is disappear when times get tough.
- Share the good news as well as the bad. It’s ok, people can take it, especially if you hire “grownups” and treat them that way. Don’t overhype the good news and don’t spin or omit the bad news. People are smart and they will see right through your attempt to obfuscate the truth.
- Clearly articulate what is confidential. There’s two points here. The first is to make sure people know what part of the information that you are sharing must not be repeated outside the walls of the company. The second is to trust the team enough to actually share that confidential information with them. Giving people your trust in a straightforward manner almost guarantees that they will not break it.
- Be willing to address less than positive feedback. There are times when leaders do things that don’t seem to make sense to the rank and file. Sometimes these things make everyone’s job tougher and can hurt morale. Make sure to address why painful decisions have been made. Talk about the alternatives and how the leadership team came to the decision. Just understanding why a decision was made will lead to a much greater acceptance of it.
- Let people share their accomplishments. It is wonderful to have a team member be able to demonstrate or talk about a significant achievement that has occurred. This is a morale booster across the entire organization. For example – demo new product capabilities, talk about a new marketing campaign, share a story about closing a major customer. Knowing that the company recognizes and appreciates these milestones is key.
For more reading about transparency see Transparency and Open Communication by Beth Steinberg on Rypple. Beth and I worked together a few years back and she’s got some great thoughts on leadership.
Lately I’ve been reflecting about what is most important to me about work. If I were to run my own company what would I focus on? Here’s my top 10 list, in no particular order.
- Transparency – I think by now you all know how I feel about this one. Companies are much better off when leaders share more than rather than less.
- Doing Good – I want to make a difference, don’t you? If I had my druthers I would work on technology that improves the quality of life. This might be a medical advance, an alternative energy play, or even something like software that makes managing IT infrastructure easier and reduces manual labor. There are many ways to look at this.
- Learning – If I am not learning something new, I am not growing. Earlier in my career I read tech books and volunteered for new projects. These days I read management books, and I like to learn from people I work with. Leading teams working on new technology is also fun for me. Read about my learnings in this post.
- Smart People – What I really mean is working with people that are smarter than I am. I like to identify people to hire that are wicked smart – and motivated. Delegating is easy with folks like this! I also learn a lot more too.
- Collaboration – I enjoy working in a culture where people collaborate rather than compete. It is no fun if work turns into a proposition where if one person wins the other loses. I’d rather have everyone succeed together.
- Respect – Everyone, and I mean everyone on the team deserves respect. One of the best ways to demonstrate it is to really listen to what people are saying. You’ll learn a lot about their opinions and what really motivates them. It’s the best way to understand what is important to each member of the team. Some of my thoughts on respect.
- Diversity – For me this isn’t just a buzzword. The best team that I’ve ever led had geographic, ethnic, gender, and perspective diversity. Folks didn’t always agree – but that’s what made the team so powerful.How diversity can help you.
- Balance – Work is important, but there are other things in life besides work. I’ve done the 100 hour weeks and I can tell you that it really leaves nothing for your personal life. I’m willing to work hard, but I always make sure to take some time for myself too.
- Fun – If a work environment isn’t fun the days drag on forever. A sense of fun and play helps foster camaraderie in the team.
- Trust – This cuts both ways. Management needs to trust their team to do their jobs to the best of their ability without micromanaging. This includes the flexibility to work how, when, and wherever the person is most effective. In return, the team needs to trust that management is going to steer the company in a fiscally prudent manner and make appropriate strategic decisions.
I recently read a blog post written by a friend and former colleague of mine that made me think about how important focus is. For background – see Don’t Die in the Wrong Lake by themadepeacock. He describes a scenario where his former employer was so focused on one particular industry that she killed the company by ignoring all of the other possibilities. This is when too much focus – or even more specifically the wrong focus is very bad.
To play the devil’s advocate, I have to say that normally, strong focus is very good. There is nothing worse than working for a company with very limited resources (time, money and people) that is trying to be everything to everybody. Diversity in focus is great for profitable companies and especially profitable companies that want to grow into other industries and have the means to do so. Too much diversity can kill a small company just as quickly as the wrong focus can.
First of all, small companies are highly dependent upon each one of their customers. This is because typically small companies only have a few of them. If you only have 10 customers it is really painful to lose 1 of them. For a bigger company losing one customer is only bad if it is a really high profile large customer.
If you are a customer of a small company, you know that you are taking a risk in buying from them. If you are working with Joe’s Software Emporium you don’t know if the company will be around for the long haul or not. Joe is clearly not IBM. The reason you *are* working with Joe is because he can provide you with something very specific that no one else can provide. This may mean a particular piece of functionality, a particular customer service capability, or even just the fact that you can get something small and simple at a price point that larger companies may not be interested in selling as an independent product (it’s not worth their effort). Joe’s customers are dependent on his focus. They care about what he is providing to them now, and how it will meet their needs in the future. What if Joe decided to put most of his resources on another product that his customer’s aren’t interested in – splitting his focus? He might lose his current customers trying to get different ones.
I’ve worked for a number of companies that decided not to focus on the product that they were successfully selling in the market place even though it could be improved and its revenue could be grown significantly. Instead, these companies started multiple new efforts, sometimes it almost felt like the flavor of the week. What this caused was significant alienation of their existing customer base as well as frustration at the employee level. Some employees could clearly see the customer problems and were powerless to stop them due to a lack of resources. Other employees were getting whip-sawed among multiple top priorities and were never able to focus (there’s that word again) successfully on getting anything done.
Remember – focus is good. It’s only the wrong focus that is bad.