Thursday, September 27, 2012

Taking too long to get rid of the "Brilliant Jerk"

This is an amazing story from Cliff Oxford in the New York Times You're The Boss blog.

I had a brilliant start-up talent when I was building my company, STI Knowledge, into a global brand. When we hired him, we hired over our heads. He had juice. We marveled at his manic performance, which often propelled all of us. When we had a crisis, he could solve it. Yes, he could have taken bigger jobs at bigger salaries but he chose to work with rebels. He knew we were right in our vision and mission, and he knew we could not do it without him. But in trying to maintain his glory, he struggled to let us go and grow.

The growth phase required the addition of staff members, systems and structure that changed the dynamics of the company. While the brilliant talent was a high-tech genius, the new stars were being made in areas like sales, marketing and education. He felt left out. He was no longer needed in every meeting. He could not simply pop into the chief executive’s office four or five times a day like old times, and the new processes and systems hindered and even prevented him from being the savior. Right before our eyes, the brilliant talent became the Brilliant Jerk.

I have listened to Brilliant Jerks proclaim, “I am the one who is always on call, who drives the most revenue, who is here on weekends and who has the knowledge.” And the Brilliant Jerk speaks the truth. But I have also seen him stick his head in the door and deflate an entire management team. A growth company needs enablers, not disablers....

So what’s the right answer? Get rid of the Brilliant Jerk as fast as you possibly can.

The biggest waste of time in a high-growth company is the period that falls between when you know someone does not fit the growth culture and the time you terminate the relationship. On average, I’d say the Brilliant Jerk hangs around for 1.5 years; decisive action can limit the period to less than six months. The likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Roger Ailes have had no problem showing Brilliant Jerks the door, and all built world-class brands faster and better than the rest of us. I wish I could tell you I was as tough as those guys. I learned the hard way by not taking action when I should have.

I can tell you from personal experience that coddling the Brilliant Jerk — letting him work from home, consoling him, giving him special assignments — does not work. It just kicks the can down the road. At my company, I was worried about the impact his firing would have on other employees who had shown him respect. To my surprise, the reaction was, “What took you so long?”

One of the worst feelings I have ever experienced was looking at the Brilliant Jerk and saying, “We have a vision, and I have decided you are no longer a match for where we need to go.” One of the best feelings came the next day when everyone was moving forward together.

I have had the weird experience of feeling terrible about firing an employee, then having the other employees telling me the next day, "What took you so long?" A further regret is that this employee wasn't even brilliant!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Don't dwell on your mistakes; make the most of your second chances

We fear mistakes because it seems to us that failure is a life sentence - a single failure creates insurmountable limits, in our mind. If you're more than 30 years old, a simple look back should assure you that this is not the case. You've failed a few times, or more than that, and have been able to bounce back. Yet this fear persists.

We forget that for 99% of mistakes you can make, there are second chances. We are allowed to try again - perhaps at the same task, perhaps a different one. But we don't only have one shot at succeeding; we have many.

In another of Adam Bryant's great NY Times "Corner Office" interviews, Mark Templeton, CEO of Citrix, discusses his second chance - regaining the CEO job after having lost it once:

There was a time, a small gap, when I lost the C.E.O job. In the June quarter of 2000, we really missed our expectations, and by then I'd been C.E.O. for six quarters and I was learning a lot, especially about working with the board. I had not kept the board informed about what was going on and some of the struggles we were having, and I was trying to carry all of it myself, which is what green leaders do. After we missed our expectations hugely, the board decided we would do a public search for a replacement, and I was demoted to president and senior executive officer. I deserved that because that's part of the game, being held accountable.

So we did a public search for a replacement and we had a candidate, but the board decided they didn't like him. That was about six months in. Then we had a second one, but the board decided that I was actually a viable candidate again. They asked me if I'd be interested in having my title back. It took me about a microsecond to say yes.

Q. So you were able to hit the reset button on the C.E.O. job, but with lessons learned.

A. And what a set of lessons to learn. No. 1: Remember you're a member of the team, and teams can take on big problems. You don't have to carry them yourself. In fact, as C.E.O. you have two teams, your board and management. And No. 2: Communication with the board is really critical to your success because that's how you can get the kind of advice you need to lead a company through hard times.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A big mistake in "6 Common Mistakes in Managing Requirements"

I got a very tempting offer in my email this morning. No, a Nigerian prince did not need me to hold onto a few of his millions in my bank account. Instead, it was an offer to download a paper called "6 Common Mistakes in Managing Requirements" from Accompa, a group that makes software for tech product management.

Now, how could I resist such an offer? So I registered and downloaded the paper. And [spoiler alert] here are the mistakes:

Mistake #1: Requirements Are Locked Up in Silos

Mistake #2: Requirements Are Lost

Mistake #3: Requirements Are Prioritized Using Ad-hoc Approaches

Mistake #4: Requirements Are Not Verified

Mistake #5: Requirements Are Incomplete

Mistake #6: No Easy Way to Know the Latest Status of Requirements

It will not surprise you to know the solution to all these mistakes is Accompa's software. But I'm not here to take issue with that; for all I know, the software can help a product manager avoid all these issues.

I've got a bone to pick, though, with the wording of these "mistakes." Note that the first five use the passive voice. The passive voice is a vehicle to distance the true subject of a sentence from the action.

"Requirements Are Prioritized Using Ad-hoc Approaches." Who did the prioritizing? Reading this, you would think it doesn't matter. But if you've read through the information on this site, you will know that in avoiding mistakes, accountability is everything. And the passive voice is not allowed. In none of the stories here will anyone say, "Mistakes were made."

So, to the above mistake - the bigger mistake is likely that there is an organizational structure where accountability for prioritization is diffuse or unclear. In that case, ad-hocracy will rule the day.

If you really want to avoid mistakes, you can't approach them sideways, with the passive voice. You need to deal with them head on.

Don't make the mistake "6 Common Mistakes" did. Be accountable. You don't even need software for that.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"Affordable loss" concept helps reduce the cost of failure

Affordable loss is a concept defined by Prof. Saras Sarasvathy of the University of Virginia's Darden School. The website provides a very concise definition of the concept:

Affordable loss involves decision makers estimating what they might be able to put at risk and determining what they are willing to lose in order to follow a course of action. Using the entrepreneur’s new venture plunge decision, this article combines insights from behavioral economics to develop a detailed analysis of the affordable loss heuristic. Speci´Čücally, we develop propositions to explain how individuals: (1) decide what they can afford to lose; and (2) what they are willing to lose in order to plunge into entrepreneurship.

This video from Professor Stuart Read of the IMD business school elaborates on the idea of affordable loss. Rather than sketch out a long-term vision and quantify potential, competitive strategy and define target customers, launching with affordable loss is done by defining a crucial first step (or steps) and deciding to invest a fixed amount (money and time) in it. If that step achieves its goal, it would justify more investment and the next step can be taken.

Affordable loss helps an entrepreneur know when something is not working and gives a signal that an effort should be stopped or redirected before too much money and time is spent. It's also discussed in two recent business books, Peter Sims' "Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries," and "Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future," by Leonard Schlesinger et al.

Here's a quote from an entrepreneur who is interviewed in the video, Kevin DeWhitt, founder of Agilyx, a maker of alternative fuels:

The primary key was a wife who understood me. And when I came to her and said, "Honey, I think in a year's time if I develop a model and a story, I think I can get this project funded, and from there we can move on our way." In reality it took 2 years, and that was 2 years of a scientist not generating any income. There were 5 kids in the house, and a wife that was supporting everybody, that's a little hard. That vision, though, that she and I had together and she allowed me to pursue was really key in getting it launched.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Craziest deliberate mistake ever? "The Year of Yes"

I've been fascinated by deliberate mistakes every since reading the HBR article "The Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes," by Paul Schoemaker and Robert Gunther, years ago. This fascination was reawakened by Schoemaker's marvelous book "Brilliant Mistakes" (my favorite book of last year).

Examples of deliberate mistakes are hard to find. Which means they are an important untapped resource of learning. As part of writing my Mistake Bank book, I went back to Schoemaker's book for more examples. And rediscovered the story of Maria Headley. This is from the website for her book "The Year of Yes."
THE YEAR OF YES (Hyperion) is a memoir of the year that writer Maria Dahvana Headley put fate in charge of her love life. Weary of the kind of guys she seemed to always date, (sample line: "I'm listening to NPR...Do you want to come over and make out?") she decided to stop being so picky, and start going out with everyone who asked her. Yeah, everyone. Surely some of them would be different. They were.

Over the next 12 months, Maria ended up dating most of NYC: a homeless guy who thought he was Jimi Hendrix, a subway conductor, a mommy-obsessed millionaire, a guy who wanted her to bite his…well, you can guess, a woman who asked herto have her baby, an ice cream man who gave her a free cone – no euphemism here, he really did, a 70-year-old salsa dancer, a Playwright, a 30-year-old virgin,a Colombian Cowboy/Handyman, a Player King, a matched set of Princelings, a reincarnated dachshund owned by her mother in the early 70’s, and more. Many, many more. She fell apart. She fell over. She fell into a few beds. She fell out of a few beds. And most importantly, she fell in love. Twice.

This is a deliberate mistake, for sure, or a series of them. She went out with many of these men (and women) in spite of her instinct against it. It seems crazy, yet there's a powerful logic behind the approach. Schoemaker writes this:

By permitting many mistakes in dating, Headley was able to learn faster about what she truly wanted in a partner. She then found her special partner more quickly. Headley's epiphany was that our typical way of experimenting - developing a preconceived idea of Mr. or Ms. Right and finding someone to fit the part - does not always lead to the best decisions. Making more mistakes, as Headley did in her year of saying yes, can speed the process of learning.

What do you think? Insanity, or genius?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

"30th Anniversary of E-mail" mistake persists

Word went around the internet last week that 30 August 2012 was the 30th anniversary of e-mail, without doubt one of the most significant inventions of the past 50 years.

The anniversary was meaningless, of course. The occasion was the 30th anniversary of the copyrighting of a system called EMAIL (which did support electronic mail), developed for a small New Jersey college. The owner of the copyright is V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, who was a teenager in 1982 when he developed this system.

David Pogue, the New York Times tech columnist, was one of the many who jumped on the bandwagon (via a tweet, of course, the easiest way to jump on a story without fully checking it out). Yet, when confronted with the error by readers, he wrote a lengthy apology of the whole EMAIL issue, including a detailed explanation from a reader, Thomas Heigh. A bit of Heigh's email to Pogue:

A colleague sent me a copy of your tweet, “Happy birthday to EMAIL! 30 years old today!” I’m afraid that you’ve inadvertently endorsed the propaganda campaign of V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, who has been mounting a vigorous but quixotic effort to convince the world that he invented email as a schoolboy between 1978 and 1982. He mounts his case at However, his claims have been almost universally rejected by technology experts and historians, on the simple basis that you can’t invent something during (or after) 1978 that was already in widespread use by that time.

The roots of email stretch back more than 40 years, including to a DARPA RFC (specification) covering a "mail box protocol" in 1971. (The source for this is a powerful apology from Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton published in March, 2012, after he and a reporter had similarly reported Ayyadurai's copyright as the "invention" of e-mail.

It shows how a determined self-promoter can, through sheer effort and chutzpah, convince top-line journalists of something that is demonstrably not true; not once, but over and over again.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

In competitive sailing, fix error first, then discuss

Some good advice from Union Square Ventures' Albert Wenger, garnered from his experience in the 2012 Vineyard sailboat race. This is among six valuable lessons he learned:

Recover quickly from errors. When something goes wrong on a boat, there is no time to go sulking. Instead the problem needs to be fixed or it will generally get much worse. There is time to discuss what went wrong and how to avoid it once the problem has been fixed. Put differently, a moment of crisis is not a good time for the team to start questioning each other. That too is a good way to operate as a team at work.