Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Theodore Roosevelt overreaches in a speling debait

I've been thinking about Theodore Roosevelt recently. Our summer vacation included visiting a bunch of national parks, all of which seemed to have had Roosevelt's hand in their creation. I also have seen this quote from Roosevelt in several places:

“The only man who makes no mistakes is the man who never does anything.”

Which led me to wonder if there were some good Roosevelt mistake stories out there. Here's one I found in a book called "Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership: Lessons from the Bully Pulpit," by James L. Strock. Here it is:

One of Roosevelt's [mistakes], which seems almost comic today, involved the early twentieth-century movement for simplified spelling. Curiously for one so highly educated and said to be gifted with a photographic memory, TR was an atrocious speller. As president he expressed sympathy with the efforts of the Spelling Reform Association to simplify and systematize spelling. In 1906 he directed that government agencies adopt more than 300 spelling changes proposed by academic experts.

Though the reforms might be defensible on the basis of logic, public reaction ranged from derision to anger. The chief justice of the Supreme Court defiantly refused to adopt the new spelling. When Roosevelt sent his annual message to Congress employing the new spellings, opponents grasped an opportunity to focus their long-simmering rage against what they considered a pattern of executive overreaching. A typical reaction was that of the Louisville Courier-Journal:

Nuthing escapes Mr. Rucevelt. No subject is to hi fr himn to takl, not to lo for him to notis. He makes tretis without the consent of the Senit. He inforces such laws as meet his approval, and fales to se those that du not soot him. He now assales the English langgwidg, constitutes himself a sort of French Academy, and will reform the spelling in a way tu suit himself.

The Baltimore Sun queries: "How will he spell his name? Will he make it 'Rusevelt' or will he get down to the fact and spell it 'Butt-in-sky"? A humorist summed up the general reaction: "This is 2 mutch."

The House of Representatives, after days of debate, unanimously rebuked the president, directing that government documents should reflect "the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the language." TR saw the risk that the symbolic resonance of such a non-essential issue could damage his ability to lead on more significant matters. He rescinded his executive order and abandoned the cause - other than saying he would use simplified spelling in his own correspondence. [pp87-88]

Monday, August 29, 2011

Allan Norton's 10 Immutable Laws of Mistakes

I love this essay on mistakes by Allan Norton in the TechRepublic blog 10 Things. I especially like #10: "Failing to learn from your mistakes is a mistake."

Another great quote from the essay:

It is no coincidence that frequently, the worst mistakes occur at the worst time. End-of-project mistakes happen due to stress, time pressures, and fatigue. A deadline often leads to mistakes in the scramble to complete a task. Less time to recognize and fix mistakes is often the genesis of what can and will go wrong.

Clearly, Norton knows a lot about mistakes. And I mean that as a heartfelt compliment.

[Hat tip to Marty Rosensweig for pointing this out. Thanks Marty!]

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Remember to leave the bill on top of the till

It was more than thirty years ago, my first day working at Silliman's Hardware (now closed) in New Canaan, and I was ringing out a customer at the register. He gave me a ten-dollar bill, which I put in the drawer and gave him change.

"I gave you a twenty," the man said.

I could feel my face reddening. "No, sir," I said, "you gave me a ten."

"I'm certain I gave you a twenty."

My pulse started to race. Could it have been a twenty? Not in my mind. I opened the drawer. There was a pile of twenties and a pile of tens. The manager came over. He pulled a ten out of the drawer and gave it to the customer. "Sorry, sir," the manager said.

He closed the drawer and looked at me. "Always leave the bill on top of the register until you've given the customer his change. Then put it in the drawer. That way, there's no question what kind of bill it was."

Two lessons learned. One, leave the bill on top of the till. Second, it is hard to win an argument with the customer--and sometimes it is not worth winning.

To this day I watch to see if a cashier waits to put the bill in the drawer until the change is counted out. Many times, they don't.

Everyone must fill out an employment application

I’m happy to present the following story from Human Resources expert Sharlyn Lauby. It first appeared in her blog HR Bartender. I’m grateful for her permission to reprint it here.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about anti-harassment training and mentioned the time that I read about one of my employees in the newspaper – specifically their alleged inappropriate conduct. There’s another piece of that story I wanted to share with you because I learned a very valuable lesson with the situation.

Everyone needs to complete an employment application. Everyone. No exceptions.
You see, the employee I read about in the newspaper hadn’t completed an employment application. Only submitted a resume. He was a friend and former colleague of a member of the leadership team. You know how this goes…senior level manager wants to hire a former employee from a past employer. They know the person so the manager comes to human resources and says they know the person, great guy, no need to fill out an application, yada yada yada.

And because HR is constantly being accused of creating unnecessary paperwork, I figured I was being a team player and just took the resume. Wrong-o.

Now, if I had an application, would that have changed whether or not we hired the person…who knows? What I do know is, if he had completed an application, I might have at least known about the situation before reading about it in the newspaper.

Having no application, both the senior manager and I were in the dark. That just delivered a gut punch like you wouldn’t believe.

You’re probably wondering about the outcome of this situation. Well, the senior manager met the employee in the parking lot and came to my office. (Note: if your manager ever meets you in the parking lot and says “let’s go to the director of human resources’ office”, this is not a good sign.) I asked the employee one question – “Have you seen today’s newspaper?” He immediately resigned.
The outcome could have been very different. But I learned an important lesson – employment applications are for everyone. It’s not beneath someone to complete an application. It doesn’t change a person’s title or responsibilities. Employment applications contain different information than is usually found on a resume.

Having employees complete employment applications is necessary. Do yourself a favor and don’t cut corners on this one.

Friday, August 19, 2011

"All failures of strategy are rooted in the assumption that outcomes are predictable"

Marvelous quote from Horace Dediu in a post from hbr.org. Dediu is comparing HP's and Apple's strategy approaches in the wake of HP's exit from the PC and mobile businesses. The entire post is excellent, especially his illustration of HP's and Apple's radically different competitive positions at a key turning point in 2001.

But that's the nature of unforeseeable growth: you cannot foresee what will happen and plans never work out. Data and planning don't help. The lesson is that you need to plan for that which cannot be planned. When you are at your peak you must assume failure is imminent and when you are at the trough you must assume success is inevitable.

All failures of strategy are rooted in the assumption that outcomes are predictable.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Things can go awry - don't forget to include buffers in your daily schedule

The 99 Percent blog had a great post today by Scott Belsky entitled, "Nobody's Perfect: Why We All Need a Margin for Error" and explained how an unexpected phone call and bad weather combined to upend an entire day's schedule. Writes Belsky:

Upon arriving at the office, my two morning meetings were already waiting. I had to reschedule my lunch, and the ripple effect continued throughout the day.

Needless to say, it was a tough one. Noticeably absent was the opportunity to think, get any real work done, and connect with my team. With no margin for error, the whole day became compromised.

[Of course this was fun to read the same week as I related my "Sorry I'm Late" mistake story.]

Remember this Ira Glass quote cited by Kathryn Schulz in her TED Talk? "A story is when you expect something to happen, and something else happens instead." Our daily runarounds are full of moments when something unexpected can happen, and as Belsky notes in his story, not taking those possibilities into account can hurt your productivity and raise your stress level.

Putting it another way: a full day's schedule with no breaks is a bit of a lie.

Belsky continues:

Capacity -- specifically, the amount of time and energy we have to expend each day -- is limited. With so much that we want to accomplish, most of us are eager to fully utilize our capacity. But should we?

I would argue, "No." Without a certain amount of capacity left idle, you lose the flexibility to adapt to the unexpected or to capitalize on circumstantial opportunities. You need to create and preserve some margin in your days to reach your full potential.

I like the idea of building buffers into your daily schedule a lot. Not only can they help absorb unexpected situations, they also have a great side benefit. Sometimes things do go as planned, and you don't need the buffer. Then you find yourself with one of the greatest gifts of all: a few free moments to think.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"Sorry I'm Late" - nearly missing an important lunch date

Many years ago I worked with some great people at GTE in Tampa, Florida. I was on a six-month assignment and, during my last week there, I had a ton of things to do to get ready for my next move to Boston. That Thursday, I had agreed to meet my friend Phil for lunch, but before that, I rushed over to another part of town to return my cable box. I ran in, dropped the box off, and ran back to my car. There was no car in the space in front of me, so instead of backing out, I zipped forward.

When the tires hit the concrete curb at the front of the parking space, I knew I was in trouble. I took my foot off the gas, but the car didn't stop until the tires had run up and over and the underside of the car had fallen hard onto the curb.

I backed up over the curb again, then out of the parking space. There was a grinding noise from the bottom of the car and it wouldn't go faster than 20 miles per hour. I carefully creeped along the side roads for several miles till I reached the dealer. It took a while for them to look at the car and let me know what needed to be fixed (thankfully, it wasn't bad).

By now I was terribly late for lunch. I went to a pay phone (see how long ago it was?) and called Phil at the restaurant. "I am so sorry, but I won't make it for lunch. You see, my car..."

Phil interrupted. "You need to get to the restaurant now. There are 25 people here for your goodbye lunch."

I hung up, called a cab, and eventually made it to the restaurant. In the dining room, a long stretch of tables was full of empty drink glasses, plates, and about a dozen people who were still there after 90 minutes of waiting. It was a memorable good-bye lunch, for them as well as for me.

One thing I took away from that experience: hurrying often makes you later. It's a lesson I'm still learning.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Standalone innovation group creates "organ rejection"

In the mid 2000s I had the opportunity to create one of those innovation groups - the job of which was to get our company into new, growing markets, combining the processes we had with new technology - using partnerships to move more quickly than developing our own technology.

We had 10 folks, in marketing, product management, implementation and sales. We met every day, built expertise, became one of the top 3 names in this new market segment within months.

The biggest mistake I made was viewing the innovation group as a destination in itself. I saw it growing to become a fully-functioning company, rather than as a feeder to the main operating units. As a result, I didn't do enough to communicate with, collaborate with, or otherwise pave the way for the rest of the company to support what we were creating.

We sold three deals right out of the gate, a huge validation of our approach, in my view. However, when we needed resources and capabilities from the other units, we suffered "organ rejection" - my colleagues didn't accept our approach and decisions when it came to them doing the work. Completely understandable in hindsight - I hadn't asked them to participate in creating the solution - it was nonetheless devastating.

After several highly emotional and agonizing encounters, we found a way forward that integrated our innovation efforts with the main organization's vital capabilities - but in doing so we wasted valuable time and created lots of unproductive conflict. And poor decisions that more collaboration might have avoided also harmed the business.

Net result: we accomplished far less than we should have done.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Test whether what you're doing is good enough

From the New York Times interview of Pegasystems founder Alan Trefler:

I used to play pretty serious chess when I was young. It's very easy for me - though I find it is difficult for a lot of folks - to recognize that a lot of the things you do are mistakes.

One of the things, at least for me, that was very important to becoming a good chess player was losing a lot of games. And you get to the point where, when you lose a game or when you make a mistake, you don't go beat yourself up. You try to learn something from it.

So we try to encourage, though it is difficult, an attitude that things can be better, and you'd better be learning from what you're doing as well. If you're going to be successful and really do something meaningful, you need to constantly be testing whether what you're doing is good enough.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The customer likes what we're doing for them... or do they?

I was reminded of this story while talking to a former colleague, who now works for a firm that helps B2B companies understand supporters and detractors in their user bases.

Some years ago, our company supplied billing services for a mid-sized telecom provider. It was old technology, and we were very interested in migrating them over to a new platform we'd just begun to offer. They were referenceable and complimentary of our work with them. The IT group, our liaison, was happy to set up a meeting with the various groups that would be involved in a decision to change platforms.

At that meeting we learned the other groups didn't hold us in such high esteem. Not only were they not ready to migrate, they had a list of issues with our current system they wanted fixed. And while we were there, they let us in on a lot of other ideas they had about what we could do better, ideas they had clearly been storing up for years.

We (me included - I headed the group that managed our customer relationships) had made a big error - we had mistaken good feedback from our direct customer, the IT group, for good feedback from the whole user base. Needless to say, we never sold them on that new platform we were offering.