Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"Mistakes On Purpose" workshop

For those who are intrigued by the subject matter on this site, you may be interested in the "Mistakes On Purpose" workshop by Laurie Rosenwald, which she provides to companies and educational organizations. More info here.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Learning from failures (and successes) requires different IT systems

A few years ago, I worked with a colleague tasked with improving his company’s project management outcomes (I was going to say processes, but on thinking about it they asked him to improve the performance and results).

He’s focusing on lessons learned, as you might expect. The company has done lots of projects; surely there are many lessons within those projects that could help improve things going forward? And there are. But my colleague has found that the inability to effectively capture and share these lessons prevents the organization as a whole from getting much if any value out of their past experiences.

[A Harvard Business Review article, "The Experience Trap," emphasizes why project management, in particular, is prone to repeating the same mistakes over and over again.]

I was thinking about my colleague as I was reading this recent article in “Strategy + Business” entitled, “Are You Killing Enough Ideas?” by Zia Khan and Jon Katzenbach. The article discusses innovation, not project management, but this section in particular resonated with me and spurred my connection with project management lessons:

…When there is an ineffective balance between formal and informal structures, it often shows up as an inability to manage bad ideas effectively. After a formal decision has been made to advance some ideas but not to pursue others, the company expends considerable effort to plan the next steps for the winners. But no one thinks actively of planning next steps for the losing ideas, to put them to rest, free up their supporting resources, and (ideally) identify and share any lessons or insights gleaned from the experience.

One quibble with this otherwise excellent paper: why is identifying and sharing lessons and insights from experience an “ideal” situation? It should be business as usual.

Significant corporate initiatives, whether they are innovation ideas or IT projects, are expensive in capital, resources and opportunity cost. The experience, whether the project is ultimately a success or not, is hard won and valuable. It should be mandatory to capture and share these lessons and insights.

There are several barriers my colleague faces in trying to institutionalize the creation and use of lessons learned. “Let’s move on” is one of the most pernicious ones. After a difficult project, people are inclined to look ahead rather than backward, to forget difficult or painful experiences rather than mine them for lessons. (As mentioned in chapter 6 of the book, lessons sometimes emerge years after an experience.) Organizations, of course, in their eagerness to place blame, facilitate people’s instincts to hide or blur what happened in the case of a failed project.

My colleague’s company has a very open and positive culture; they are more equipped than most companies at overcoming the reluctance to share. Yet they still face a significant obstacle: their information systems are not up to the task of gathering, sharing, sorting and consuming lessons-learned material.

They capture lessons in Word forms and documents, and store them in file folders on a shared drive. And they are not surprised when no one can find anything. Dumping valuable lessons on a shared drive may have a slightly positive use for whoever writes the lessons down; at least that person learns a bit more from the retelling. But certainly it’s of no use to anyone else.

Lessons-learned need enterprise 2.0-type tools that capture narrative data, signifiers and tags; allow users to “like,” pass along, add to, and otherwise annotate original stories; and browse through, search and connect related stories. That’s what my colleague needs, and that’s what every organization that wants to “ideally” learn from both good and bad experiences needs as well.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Front-line nurses discover small process innovations can cure medication mistakes

Bob Sutton posted on this 2009 San Francisco Chronicle article, but it had so much good stuff relating to areas I’m passionate about that I need to write about it too.

The article concerns an effort by Bay Area nurses to reduce the occurrence of medication errors, which, according to the Chronicle, cause 400,000 preventable injuries and cost an extra $3.5 billion in medical costs each year. The results of the effort: a 88% reduction in medication errors in the participating hospitals.
Here are a few quotes that talk about areas I’m interested in – listening to and empowering customer-facing (patient-facing?) personnel, and the value of simple, low-tech solutions to business problems:
Striving to reduce interruptions that lead to mistakes, teams of nurses at the different hospitals came up with a variety of methods – often surprisingly low tech – to alert others they were administering medications…. 
The solutions “have to be low tech because we, as staff nurses, don’t have the money or ability to make high-tech changes,” said Celeste Arbis, a registered nurse in the medical-surgical unit there. “Something as simple as changing the process just a little bit can make a big difference.”… 
Nurses attributed much of the program’s success to allowing those on the front lines to develop and tailor their own solutions.

I’ve seen both these situations in action: the ability of front-line personnel to understand and fix problems with the processes they use, and the effectiveness of often-overlooked simple and low-tech solutions. Sutton wrote something very profound in his post on this subject: “I think that people — especially managers — often use spending money as a substitute for thinking, when inexpensive and low-tech solutions work just fine.”

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Ben Horowitz - raising capital? You only need one believer

Venture capitalist Ben Horowitz on the difficult task of raising money in a down market, and the value of persistence:

Once you begin your process, keep in mind that you are looking for a market of one. You don’t need every investor to believe that you can succeed. You only need one. If 20 investors tell you “no”, that does not mean that there is no market for your deal. You just need one to say yes and she will erase all 20 no’s.

Monday, July 22, 2013

No Mulligans

I played golf with my brother-in-law a few years ago. He hadn’t played much and was struggling. But no matter where his drive went, or where he found his ball, he would not take a mulligan or improve his lie. “Go ahead and move the ball,” I told him. “Why suffer?”

“No thanks,” was his reply. And he hacked the ball back into the fairway.
That round made a big impression on me. For one thing, I was a poor-to-fair golfer and I’d take mulligans from time to time, or take a favorable drop, or the like. But what my brother-in-law taught me that day was that I would never know precisely how well I was doing at golf if I didn’t follow the rules.

And if I didn’t know how well I was doing, it would be hard to improve. I had to confront the brutal facts (as stated in “Good to Great”) before I could move forward.

I tried to take that lesson into my business life as well. How were things going, really? Was I using excuses to mask weaknesses I myself needed to address?

In short, to be great at business you can’t take mulligans. You’ve got to face reality and try to improve.
It was a very valuable day on the golf course. After I cut down on the mulligans and played the ball where it lay, my scores, predictably, got worse. Over time they’ve come down. And, best of all, they’re real.

(Photo: “Tee Time 3″ from Garrison Photography via stock.xchng–note: NOT my brother-in-law)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Pedro Baranda of Otis Elevator: three beneficial outcomes if leaders delegate

From Pedro Baranda, president of Otis Elevator Corporation, as told to the New York Times' Adam Bryant:

The main mistake I tended to make — and probably still do sometimes — is that because I’m an engineer, I like to get into the details of things. So I got some feedback about it early on, such as, “Let me do my job.”

That was an important lesson, because if you want to develop leaders and not followers, one of the key things you have to learn to do is delegate. One of my bosses once told me: “You’ve got to delegate because there are only three possible outcomes. You tell them what your expectations are, and if their solution is better than yours, that’s fantastic. If the solution is the same as yours would be, then it’s fantastic, too, because at least you didn’t have to do it. And if it’s not as good as you expected, you can always take the time to teach them why and what to do differently. That way, you will have learned about the person and the person will have learned from you.”

That lesson about delegation is fundamental if you want to develop leaders and not followers. I heard an expression from one of my business professors — that talent flow is the best predictor of future cash flows — and that has stayed with me.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Steve Martin: Naïveté is necessary to developing your creativity

Another great quote from "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life." There are echoes here of the entrepreneur's necessary delusion referred to in Dan Isenberg's "Worthless, Impossible and Stupid: How Contrarian Entrepreneurs Create and Capture Extraordinary Value."

Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naïveté, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Steve Martin learned performing through documenting & reflecting on his own work

Steve Martin's memoir "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life" is a great document of a performer's growth from novice to superstar. The most fascinating sections deal with his teenage years, when, through experiences working at Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, Martin decides to pursue a career in show business. These are also the most fondly-remembered parts of his life (as opposed to his decidedly mixed view of the last six or seven years of his standup career, when he sold millions of records and sold out arenas across the country).

Martin's systematic desire to improve struck home with me. Even in his midteens, as he was honing his magic act, he had already developed a practice that most of us (at any age) could benefit from:

Following the advice in "Showmanship for Magicians," I kept scrupulous records of how each gag played afer my local shows for the Cub Scouts or Kiwanis Club. "Excellent!" or "Big laugh!" or "Quiet," I would write in the margins of my Big Indian tablet; then I would summarize how I could make the show better next time.

The habit of self-review continued as he shifted to comedy and became a small-time headliner in California clubs. And, in another lesson we can all learn from, he acted on what he learned, for example in this mistake story:

In case I ad-libbed something wonderful, I began taping my shows with a chintzy cassette recorder. I had a routine in which I played a smug party guy with a drink in his hand. When the bit started, the waitresses brought me a glass of wine that I would use as a prop. When that glass was empty, they would bring me another. One night I listened to the tape and could hear myself slurring. I never had a drink before or during a show again.

It's very easy to let moments pass, especially when they may be embarrassing or tell us something we'd rather not know. But in those moments, Martin shows us, are the data that tell us how to get better at what we do. "Born Standing Up" shows that substantial careers start small, and improve day by day over years - but only if we mine our ongoing experiences to learn and adapt.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Flipboard's Mike McCue: at Netscape, focusing on competition over customers was a mistake

From McCue's interview with Adam Bryant of the New York Times:

One of the biggest mistakes I made at Netscape was to focus too much on competition. Microsoft was trying to kill us. And that caused us to think about what we were going to do about Microsoft. What we really should have been thinking was: How do we focus on what our users want? Why did they love our product? How do we make it more of something that they love? So my advice is, every time you have a thought about the competition, replace that with a thought about your customer and you’ll do far better as a business.

A coda to the story is that Netscape was "killed" by Microsoft despite Netscape's focus on trying to counter their competition. The lesson is that a customer focus might have done better.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Interview with Dan Isenberg, author of "Worthless, Impossible and Stupid"

Dan Isenberg is the executive director of the Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project and the author of the great new book "Worthless, Impossible and Stupid: How Contrarian Entrepreneurs Create and Capture Extraordinary Value," a very valuable book on the subject. We had a wide-ranging conversation on failure, mistakes, lean startups and whether entrepreneurs need to try to get very big. Enjoy!

Access the podcast here (30 minutes).


1:15 What "Worthless, Impossible and Stupid" is about
3:10 On the emerging "Failure Culture"
7:30 The fine line between success and failure in new ventures
8:20 Is the first mover advantage really an advantage?
9:25 Do entrepreneurs have to be innovators to succeed?
10:00 Dan's failed venture
11:30 Lessons from the failure - the sixth sense of business danger; the speed of failure; reading the macro situation; the "Dersu Uzala" story
13:33 Is there a scarcity of capital for entrepreneurs?
17:00 On the Lean Startup movement; not so novel - "that's the way our grandparents did business"; "a lot of really good ventures will require a lot of capital"
18:55 Is a flower-shop owner really an entrepreneur? "There's not a continuum between self-employment and entrepreneurship."
22:30 Entrepreneurs as job-creators - and public policy (please be patient with the interviewer's 90 - 90! - second question. He got carried away.)
28:05 A bit more on the book - great entrepreneur stories without even one about Steve Jobs

"Better Place" bankruptcy as a component of broader trial-and-error process?

There has been much written on the recent bankruptcy filing of A Better Place, a company proposing to drive adoption of all-electric cars by creating a battery-swapping infrastructure - extending the range of electric cars without a lengthy wait to recharge.

Is Better Place's demise the end of the story? Saul Kaplan doesn't think so. In his post at Fortune Magazine's site, Kaplan discusses what the company's failure means, and answers the company's many after-the-fact critics:

The "I told you so crowd" immediately started taking shots. New York Times columnist David Brooks took a swing directly at Agassi calling him a "brilliant technology entrepreneur" but implying that he was among "conference circuit capitalists who give fantastic presentations but have turned out to be marginal in history." Ouch. Easy for David Brooks to criticize others for sharing their point of view at conferences when he leverages a New York Times platform to do the same thing.

He points to Tesla's announcement of battery-swapping trials as evidence that the model is far from dead:

Tesla is going to test stations where Model-S owners can swap batteries in 90 seconds for $50-60, less time and money than filling up a tank of gas. Bold business models don't die; they just get reinvented. If we want to go from best practice to next practice we have to try more stuff. We learn more from efforts that don't work than from those that do. So instead of piling on those that try to do bold things without initial success or criticizing those that share their paradigm shifting ideas publicly, we should thank them for pushing us forward and providing the knowledge to try again, only better the next time.

As we've discussed here, trial and error is not a random process; within a constrained problem definition, failures reduce the subsequent exploration that's needed to solve the problem. A Better Place didn't work, but that's not the end of the story. Battery-swapping may very well work, in time.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Can struggle and failure lead to competitive advantage?

Found this interesting post from Lolly Daskal, "Failure: The Competitive Advantage." Lolly compares two leaders facing upheaval in their professional lives and the loss of their jobs. One was handling it poorly - the other was excitedly looking to the possibilities of the future. Here's how they differed:

The first leader—the one who was struggling—had up to this point lived a charmed life. A perfect childhood in a loving, stable home, the best schools, graduation from a top college followed by a great job obtained with his father’s assistance. He had married his college sweetheart and they had a beautiful family—adorable twins, a boy and girl—with a fantastic home and even a luxury vacation home.

The second leader came from a very different background. His parents had been divorced, and his childhood was often lonely. Money was scarce and he always had an after-school job. After graduation his only option for continuing his education was a city college, where he continued to work nights to put himself through. After graduation he got a good entry-level job and made his way quickly up the ladder through hard work and dedication, eventually becoming global leader of his business unit. He married a woman he had met at a soup kitchen, and they had two wonderful sons.

The thesis being that the trials experienced by the second leader prepared him better for the unstable environment of today than the easy successes of the first leader. As we know, struggle and failure produce grit, a trait which is hard to teach out of a book but which is a major component of long-term happiness and success.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Calculation error gives Moog synthesizer its signature sound

Bill Hemsath, one of the engineers of the original Minimoog synthesizer, on why it had such a distinctive sound.

Our instrument had punch to it because we inadvertently overdrove the filter like crazy. Jim Scott did the filter and voltage controlled amplifiers. He made a calculation error, and he overdrove the filters by 10, 12, 15 dB, something like that. And nobody knew that until a month or two after we started in production. And everyone said, "Leave it alone!"

Hat tip New York Times.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Books of the summer so far

This post is off topic, but no one in the US is reading anyway due to the holiday weekend ;)

I wanted to share the books I've read so far this summer; it's been a great reading season - when I looked back I was shocked at how many I've finished. Enjoy!

Steve Martin, "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life." A performer's coming of age, from raw beginner to superstar.

Dan Isenberg, "Worthless, Impossible and Stupid: How Contrarian Entrepreneurs Create and Capture Extraordinary Value." Valuable, plausible and wise. More to come on this book in the coming weeks.

John Le Carré, "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold." I borrowed this from the seaside hotel where we spent the Memorial Day weekend, and I'm glad I did. Chilly, and chilling. Its reputation as a classic is well-deserved.

Haruki Murakami, "1Q84." A 900-page mind f---. I loved it.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, "Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder." Perhaps the most significant book I've read in recent years. Explains much of my current mindset on economics, philosophy and social policy. But be warned: the author's voice is quirky, redundant and can be infuriating. Ignore that and focus on the ideas, which are priceless.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bessemer Venture Partners celebrates its missed opportunities

Legendary Silicon Valley venture capital fund Bessemer Venture Partners publishes, on its website, its "anti-portfolio," containing investments it could have made, but chose not to. These investments are as star-studded a portfolio as you can imagine, a testament to the difficulty of picking investments in startups. As Daniel Isenberg wrote in "Worthless, Impossible and Stupid: How Contrarian Entrepreneurs Create and Capture Extraordinary Value," "Entrepreneurship and the process of betting on it may be impossible to systematize, precisely because of its contrarian nature."

BVP's successful investments include Skype, Staples, LinkedIn, Celtel and Yelp. Its missed opportunities include these:

Google: Cowan’s college friend rented her garage to Sergey and Larry for their first year. In 1999 and 2000 she tried to introduce Cowan to “these two really smart Stanford students writing a search engine”. Students? A new search engine? In the most important moment ever for Bessemer’s anti-portfolio, Cowan asked her, “How can I get out of this house without going anywhere near your garage?”

Lotus & Compaq: Ben Rosen, one of the founders of Sevin Rosen, offered Felda Hardymon the chance to invest in both Lotus and Compaq Computer on the same day. Says Hardymon: "Lotus wasn't proven yet, and I was worried about the situation there. As for Compaq, I told him there was no real future in transportable computers since IBM could do it."

eBay: "Stamps? Coins? Comic books? You've GOT to be kidding," thought Cowan. "No-brainer pass."

And more are available on the site. (Thanks to Dan Isenberg for referring to this list in "Worthless, Impossible and Stupid.")

Bravo to the BVP Partners for sharing their list and their sense of humor.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Wyoming musical tour showcases entrepreneurial drive and creativity

Entrepreneurism is fed by constraints. Obstacles create situations that must be overcome, leading to success, or not, in which case failure results. And that's OK.

I've been reading the book "Worthless, Impossible and Stupid: How Contrarian Entrepreneurs Create and Capture Extraordinary Value," by Daniel Isenberg, and one of the many quotes I've underlined is this: "A degree of adversity strengthens the entrepreneur and weeds out those without the required pluck."

And pluck is precisely the adjective I'd use to characterize the players in the WYOmericana Caravan, a musical tour featuring roots music acts that traveled through some of the loneliest, least inhabited territory in the USA. The tour was featured in a New York Times article.

Some excerpts from the piece that highlight the group's entrepreneurial pluck:

The caravan’s grass-roots style of self-promotion reflects a growing trend. “I’m seeing more and more artists who don’t have an agent or publicist but are finding creative ways to tour,” said Valerie Denn, a booking agent in Austin, Tex. As examples, she cites Dave Barnes, master of the “barnjo” (a hard-body electric banjo), whose coming itinerary takes him through Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan, and the Denver-based singer-songwriter Megan Burtt, who will be appearing at clubs in Colorado, California and Texas.

“Bands are pooling their resources, coming up with unusual packaging ideas,” Ms. Denn said. “They’re using social media to raise money, find free places to stay on the road or do house concerts between tour dates so they can pick up a little cash and sell some CDs. Crowdsourcing is the new norm among independent bands.”...

The caravan was inspired by the 2011 Railroad Revival Tour, in which members of Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, and Old Crow Medicine Show traveled across the Southwest. “We wanted to replicate some of the camaraderie and spirit of that tour,” said [WYOmerica co-organizer Aaron] Davis, 35, “particularly the all-band jam sessions they did at the end of their shows. They just tore it up.”

Both that tour and the caravan featured musicians who claim fealty to the mash-up genre known as Americana, but the similarities largely end there. Mumford et al traveled across the balmy Southwest amid the comforts of the pristinely restored Silver Solarium train car, while the Wyoming bands piled into two vans and Mr. Shogren’s Toyota 4Runner, braving spring hailstorms, snow-clogged mountain passes and squalls that threatened to blow their vehicles into oncoming traffic. Just outside Missoula, Mont., after a long, winding, steep descent through Hellgate Canyon, Mr. Crossland discovered that he had blown a brake line when he pumped his pedal at the bottom of the gorge. “I think God wanted me to play Missoula,” he said.

And while Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros could choose among sleeper cars, Mr. Crossland curled up each night in his van, which is tricked out with a writing desk, coffee maker, wardrobe, banjo and guitar racks, and caches of food (mostly canned peaches). Hoping for warm weather, the others had planned to camp, but unusually frigid late-spring weather forced them indoors most nights.

By economizing, collaborating and focusing on a neglected part of the country, WYOmericana sounds like what it is: a scrappy, innovative startup. And it demonstrates how a beleaguered music industry might have a future after all.