Sunday, December 21, 2014

How Laura Hillenbrand's disability shapes her distinctive narrative voice

One theme you might have noticed on this site - mistakes can lead to new discoveries, and limitations often confer advantages as much as disadvantages. An example of the latter from the New York Times Magazine profile of writer Laura Hillenbrand ("Seabiscuit)" and "Unbroken") by Wyl S. Hilton. Hillenbrand has long suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and rarely leaves her home.

She has been forced by the illness to develop convoluted workarounds for some of the most basic research tasks, yet her workarounds, in all their strange complexity, deliver many of her greatest advantages. When I asked, for example, how she reads old newspapers on microfilm without traveling to a library, I was stunned to discover that she doesn’t. “I can’t look at microfiche,” she said. “I couldn’t do that even in my good vertigo years.”

Instead, Hillenbrand buys vintage newspapers on eBay and reads them in her living room, as if browsing the morning paper. The first time she tried this, she bought a copy of The New York Times from the week of Aug. 16, 1936. That was the day Seabiscuit’s team — his owner, Charles Howard; his trainer, Tom Smith; and his jockey, Red Pollard — first collaborated at the Detroit Fair Grounds. Hillenbrand told me that when the newspaper arrived, she found herself engrossed in the trivia of the period — the classified ads, the gossip page, the size and tone of headlines. Because she was not hunched over a microfilm viewer in the shimmering fluorescent basement of a research library, she was free to let her eye linger on obscure details.

“There was so much to find,” she said of her reading. “The number-one book was ‘Gone With the Wind,’ the Hindenburg flew over Manhattan with a swastika on it and Roosevelt made a speech saying America would never become involved in foreign wars.” Soon she bought another newspaper, and then another. “I wanted to start to feel like I was living in the ’30s,” she said. That elemental sense of daily life seeps into the book in ways too subtle and myriad to count.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Four Seasons Hotels review a daily "glitch report"

This is from the autobiography of Four Seasons founder Isadore Sharp, "Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy." Four Seasons has an unparalleled reputation for customer service.

Next up [in our daily review] is a review of the previous day's mistakes in something we call the Glitch Report. Every department in the hotel is represented at the morning meeting, and each has a printout detailing what has gone wrong and what steps may already have been taken to correct course. The Glitch Report ensures that every hotel department knows what happened and which guest it affected.

We might have missed a guest with something as simple as turndown service, and everybody listens to the department head responsible as he or she articulates what went wrong. That person will go to the root cause of the problem and tell everyone what will be done to fix it in that guest's eyes. Whatever the issue, making it right starts with a sincere apology. It can also mean trying to do something else for them later on in their visit. It can mean an amenity such as flowers or fresh fruit skewers or a bottle of wine. It could mean an appropriate adjustment or consideration on their bill. For each guest, we strive to find the right approach in the apology.

Sharp added this in an interview with Christopher Elliott: "What’s important with a glitch is not the error – it’s the recovery. Guests remember how they were treated and the outcomes, and we always strive to ensure that the outcomes are positive."

Monday, November 3, 2014

Great teams "see what they can improve," even after winning

A little nugget from Andrew Garda's article in Sports on Earth on the New England Patriots - Denver Broncos matchup on Sunday night. The Patriots, led by quarterback Tom Brady, beat Denver 43-21.

"It's back to work tomorrow to see what we can improve," Brady said after the game as his team headed into a bye week. "We can always improve."

It was a sentiment shared by left tackle Nate Solder.

"We have to continue to improve because we didn't do everything the way we wanted to," he said post-victory.

Never being satisfied is the mark of a good team. It's one thing to be unhappy when you lose, as Manning was. It's entirely different when you win, and win handily. It's a special sort of madness which makes great players great and carries teams to championships.

What's true in football is also true in sales, and in management. If you won a deal, or beat your numbers for the year, you didn't do everything "the way you wanted to." There's room for improvement, and the best leaders and teams will think this way.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Quote: Eleanor Roosevelt on not regretting mistakes

“I have never regretted even my mistakes. They all added to my understanding of other human beings, and I came out in the end a more tolerant, understanding, and charitable person.” - The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The story of the locked cellphone

This is a personal story of a trivial mistake and its aftermath. I wanted a cellphone; actually, an Android phone that ran on a GSM network and, most importantly, was unlocked so I could buy prepaid SIM cards in any country I went to and use them in the phone. This was my desired solution to avoid the big roaming charges most carriers charge when you leave the country.

I had a trip to Mexico City and planned to do my shopping there. My colleague brought me to downtown, near Plaza Zocalo, and we found a raft of cellphone vendors. We picked one and started shopping. I told my colleague what I wanted, and he conducted the transaction in Spanish. They had a used phone for about $120. Android? yes. Did it work? Yes. Was it unlocked? Of course!

They demonstrated the phone by inserting a SIM card, messing around with the web browser and an app so I could be assured it worked. I was ready to buy. One more question: was it unlocked? Oh, yes!

I felt very happy with my purchase. I bought a SIM card in Mexico and the phone worked fine. And then, I brought my phone to the UK a month or so later, and... it didn't work. I tried several SIM cards and couldn't get the phone going. Where did you get this phone? I was asked. Mexico. OK, that explains it.

It was locked. After all that. I was thousands of miles from the guy who sold it to me. (As if I could even find him again.) As I pondered my mistake, I realized I could have made sure the phone was unlocked, at the shop in Zocalo, by simply asking them to test it with SIM cards from several different carriers.

But that couldn't help me with my current problem - which is that I have a cellphone that works great in Mexico, where I go a few times a year, but nowhere else.

There is a silver lining to this story, and that's what I wanted to share. I actually use the phone every day, just not for its intended purpose. I had been looking for a device other than my main phone that I could use to play music from the cloud. I considered buying a tablet, but eventually I realized I had the Mexico phone. Even if it couldn't connect to the cell network, it worked with wifi, so I could use it at home. It was Android, so it could access my music apps. A perfect solution.

So, the point is this, and I have learned this again and again. Very rarely is a mistake or failure a total loss. If you take the time to look for it, there is residue that you can use for other purposes, or take forward to your next project. When you buy a phone that ends up being locked, it's not so bad - you are instead the owner of a somewhat overpriced music player.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

U2 rejection letter from 1979

Ben Greenman of the New Yorker shared a cool rejection letter that U2 received in 1979:

It's from the Robert Stigwood Organisation, who may have been best known as the Bee Gees' label. Somehow Paul Hewson (now better known as Bono) and the boys overcame that setback.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Harvard Professor bounces back from academic probation

This story is from Tom Eisenmann, professor at Harvard Business School, and is part of a longer post called "Failing Better."

I was up for promotion at Harvard Business School. Like most universities, we have a “publish or perish” promotion process. If you don’t publish compelling research, and plenty of it, you perish. Promotion odds at my school are low: three out of four new professors eventually get fired. So, I was facing the same odds of failure as a typical entrepreneur.

I thought I was in good shape. I was studying internet companies, and a publisher had paid me a big advance for a book about this hot new phenomenon. But the senior professors who reviewed a draft of my book and my other work saw things differently. They said my research seemed like it was done in a hurry; it had a lot of intellectual loose ends. That was ironic, because my book was titled Speed Trap. The book analyzed mistakes that many internet companies made by growing too fast.

My boss told me that I wasn’t being fired — at least not immediately. Instead, the School would put me on probation and give me two more years to try to improve my research. But he added, “There are no guarantees that this will work. You should think about whether you are cut out for this job, and you should seriously consider leaving academia now. You’ve got plenty of good opportunities in the real world.”

I was shell-shocked. You may be familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and gradual, grudging acceptance. We experience these stages when we confront impending death or some other extreme, awful fate. The risk of getting fired after spending seven years trying to reach my goal seemed truly terrible. So, I passed through the five stages of grief. I lingered at anger.

But...I knew that I still loved my work. I resolved to not run from my failure this time. I would try to learn from my setback, even though that would expose me to the risk of future failure. My book was finished but not yet printed. I told my publisher to cancel my contract. I gave them their money back, and I kissed goodbye to a year’s worth of work. I put my head down and cranked out better research. I lived on edge for two years, but I got promoted. The pain was temporary, but worth it.

If you want to fail better, accepting risk is just half the battle. The other half is learning from our mistakes. As Henry Ford said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A real-life example of journaling and reflection

This is an excerpt from the new book "Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life," by Stewart Friedman of the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School. It's a very useful example of how one person has created a life habit of journaling - and of reviewing the journal regularly to assess progress and plan for the future. Check out an online journaling and reflection tool at

It's still dark outside when Tom Tierney rises in his home outside Boston on a December morning. He dresses quietly, so as not to wake his wife, Karen, and goes to the kitchen to brew some coffee. At fifty-nine, Tierney is trim and retains a certain boyishness, helped by the rimless glasses, a full head of hair, and boundless energy. He carries a mug and the fresh pot into his office and closes the door. It's 5:15 a.m., and time to begin the ritual of writing what he calls his "annual review."

The term reflects Tierney's lifetime in business: the Harvard MBA, two decades at the consulting firm Bain & Cimpany (including eight years as chief executive), and fourteen years as cofounder and guiding spirit of the nonprofit Bridgespan. But he doesn't write this personal document with the notion that it should be legible for anybody else. "It's just for me," he told me in a long interview a few years ago. "I ask how I spent my time. And I ask how I'm doing. And then I ask, 'Where am I going with all this? How can I be better? What are my priorities for the next year? Five years? Ten years?'" The annual review is more than a career assessment; it might include personal goals or thoughts about how his two sons are doing. The ritual reflects the qualities that Tierney is known for: discipline, self-reflection, an ability to think big and creatively, and a dedication to personal development, his own and others'.

As he works, he goes back through journal entries that he's written on cross-country flights and in other spare moments. Tierney, who has been journaling for decades, believes the practice helps him record meaningful data. "I keep track of every single travel day, of every day that I'm home after seven, and of how many nights I'm away and what's causing that." But it also helps him think through bigger life questions, track his progress toward long-term goals, and capture ideas and dreams about what might be.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

When a customer's suggestion is actually a strong preference

A tiny, beautiful mistake story from the New York Times "Vocations" column. The teller is Lucas Evans, a driver for Uber. The interviewer is Perry Garfinkel.

What’s your rating? [note: Uber drivers are rated by passengers on a scale up to 5. Drivers with lower ratings get fewer assignments.]

Mine is 4.8. I think I lost some points when one woman felt I had not listened when she suggested I could take Olympic or Wilshire Boulevard to her destination, rather than get on the freeway. I didn’t realize her “suggestion” was actually her preference.

People who deal with customers need to have good listening skills. Driving someone around also involves your own competence - how much do you know the neighborhoods, routes, traffic, etc.? Successfully understanding when a customer's preference is firm, even if it's different from your recommendation, is a key skill, one that Evans has clearly learned here.

[Note that this brief analysis is already longer than the story itself. This is one of the magical powers of learning from mistake stories. There's a huge amount you can discuss and learn from any story, even a short one.]

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The "Chief Everything Officer" gets a forklift driving lesson

Here's a great mistake story from Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company, brewer of Sam Adams beer. The interview with Koch is from a new series in the Washington Post called, "When We Were Small," about the startup phases of successful businesses.

When you start your own business, you’re the CEO, but you’re not the Chief Executive Officer, because there’s nobody there to execute for you. You’re the Chief Everything Officer. Immediately, you have to start doing these things you’ve never done before, and it ranges from, for us, how do you design a label? How do you make a sales call on a bar? How do you negotiate a real estate lease. I had never done any of that. And the list goes on and on, all these practical nuts and bolts of the business that, if you do them really badly, they can kill your company.

Here’s a literal example. In the very beginning, a truckload of beer arrived that I had to put away into the little warehouse we had. Well, I had never driven a forklift before. I had driven tractors and gators and things like that. But a forklift, I learned, steers from the back, which is a little different if you’ve never done it before. And you have this pallet of beer in front of you, so you can’t really see through the front.

So I get the beer off the loading dock and start driving it to the brick warehouse, where the door into the building is only about six inches wider than the pallet. So, I come rolling toward the door and — bang — the forklift hits the side of the door, takes out two courses of brick. The beer gets knocked off and half of it breaks. It took me an hour to sweep up. I never bothered to fix that door, though. I figured it I fixed it, I would just hit it again.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Scientist Freeman Dyson: trial and error created the bicycle

In a 1998 interview in Wired Magazine, Stewart Brand asked the famed physicist his thoughts on failure:

You can't possibly get a good technology going without an enormous number of failures. It's a universal rule. If you look at bicycles, there were thousands of weird models built and tried before they found the one that really worked. You could never design a bicycle theoretically. Even now, after we've been building them for 100 years, it's very difficult to understand just why a bicycle works - it's even difficult to formulate it as a mathematical problem. But just by trial and error, we found out how to do it, and the error was essential. The same is true of airplanes.

(Hat tip to Jeff Stibel on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Significant mistakes fail to derail novice olive-grower...and some advice on hiring

From the New York Times article "A Second Career, Happily in the Weeds," about retirees who built new careers in agriculture:

Saundra C. Winokur, 74, acknowledges that she lacked a formal plan when she founded Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard in Elmendorf, Tex., in 1997. “I just threw myself into it and learned on the job, though I probably would have not made as many mistakes as I did had I written a business plan,” Ms. Winokur said. If she had written a business plan, however, she might have become discouraged. “There were no olive orchards at the time in Texas,” she said. “It was thought that it couldn’t be done.”

Ms. Winokur, a native Texan who worked as an elementary-school teacher and earned a doctorate in developmental psychology, traveled extensively to research olive production. She noticed that renowned olive-producing regions — southern Spain, southern Italy and Egypt — “looked a lot like Texas.” In 1997, she bought 276 acres of sandy land, which she describes as “oceanfront property without the ocean.”

She planted 450 trees, but lost about half in the first winter because she had yet to master irrigation. Despite that setback, her business has flourished. In addition to producing olive oil, she owns a nursery and a restaurant. Ms. Winokur has had considerable help along the way. Experienced farmers in the area served as mentors. One neighbor briefed her on the history of her land, which had long been fallow when she bought it.

She later received a $98,000 Agriculture Department Value-Added Producer Grant, which helps farmers create derivative products from crops. Ms. Winokur used the money to market her olive-leaf jelly and hire a chef. The grant “gave me that kick-start I needed to move the business to the next level,” she said.

When she started her orchard, Ms. Winokur could hoist 80-pound bags on her own, but she now must rely on employees to handle strenuous chores. She estimates that it took her 13 years to recruit a “first rate” team and advises new farmers to pay well but hire carefully: “Don’t hire because you’re desperate, the first person who comes through the door. Really take your time.”

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Entrepreneur's key lesson: learn when to "rip off the Band-Aid" and give up

From, "My Biggest Failure? Failing to Recognize Failure," by Robert J. Moore in the New York Times You're the Boss blog:

In pursuit of big dreams, entrepreneurs miss nights out with friends, days on the beach, and even moments with family.

These sacrifices can create strong emotional ties between founders and their visions, making it difficult to let go. The hard truth is that emotional investment in a business is a sunk cost. It cannot be recovered, and using its existence to justify future investments of time is economically irrational. But try telling that to a passionate founder.

I fell victim to that fallacy soon after SmartRaise was started. The data showed that some of my assumptions had been wrong, and the economics of the business simply would not work. Despite my data-driven DNA, however, I hung on for dear life. After all that work, giving up couldn’t possibly be the best move, could it?

I spent weeks waiting for the data to turn in my favor, programming new features and trying out new marketing tactics. I “pivoted” a few times, but these weren’t true pivots, just small tweaks to the already disproved business model. My emotional immaturity trumped my economic logic, dooming SmartRaise to a slower, more painful death than it deserved.

Today, failure comes much more naturally because I concentrate my emotions on the bigger picture. Failures are educational and contribute to a (far away) life goal of becoming a great entrepreneur. This makes it a bit easier to rip off the Band-Aid when necessary.

If you are spending countless hours on a new project, friends and family will naturally ask you about it. After that, every time you see them they will want an update on how it is going. And who can blame them? Entrepreneurship can be exciting.

This pattern, however, can put you in an uncomfortable spot if you end up walking away from an idea. When I shut down SmartRaise, I dreaded seeing all those inquisitive friends — how would I explain that the site was no more?

What I quickly learned, though, was that no one cared nearly as much as I did. I came to realize that all those people asking for updates were not interested in how SmartRaise was doing — they were interested in how I was doing. I was touched, and they were immediately supportive of my new direction.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

"My Bad!" Skillful research proves you need to own your mistakes to learn from them

There are a number of reasons I've written less on the blog this year. One is that, after more than 5 years of thinking about mistakes and writing the book, I was running out of interesting things to say and observe (it's not an accident that most of the posts this year are stories and not items discussing mistakes and failure).

But another important reason is what has been called the "fetishization of failure." It has just become too trendy and easy to write about how we should all learn from failure, "fail fast and often," etc. etc. Too easy to start conferences on the topic, Twitter feeds, etc.

I believe that most or all of the people who have jumped on the failure bandwagon recently are well-intentioned and wish to raise people's awareness of the values of failure. But the inevitable result has been a watering-down and trivialization of something I consider really important.

And then. And then, scholars with serious credentials in this area like Francesca Gino, Bradley Staats and Christopher Myers publish a paper entitled, "'My Bad!' How Internal Attribution and Ambiguity of Responsibility Affect Learning from Failure" - a deeply-researched, well-written, clearly presented argument on how individuals' ability to learn from failure is directly affected by how they view their responsibility for it.

This isn't a new idea (the book has a section on "owning your mistakes") but rarely have I seen as impressive a discussion of the topic - and new research to boot. Gino et. al. start off with as clear a summary as you can get of previous scholarship on learning from failure. For example:

Learning from failed experiences has been of particular interest as organizations seek to adapt and avoid repeating prior failures (Ingram & Baum, 1997, Kim & Miner, 2007, Madsen & Desai, 2010). Relative to successful experiences, failures have been seen as more effective triggers of individuals’ learning efforts, because they reveal a gap in ability that stimulates efforts to “tweak” existing practices, search for new capabilities, and develop innovative solutions (Sitkin, 1992, March & Simon, 1993, Baum & Dahlin, 2007, Hora & Klassen, 2013). Following traditional theories of individual learning (e.g., Kolb, 1984), failure can be seen as a form of unexpected event (i.e., where actual outcomes differ from expected outcomes; Allwood, 1984) that creates a sense of discomfort that triggers individuals to make sense of it, test hypotheses, and stimulate growth (Louis & Sutton, 1991, Ellis, Mendel, & Nir, 2006). At the same time, by revealing that an existing strategy is unsuccessful, failures encourage broader search for new strategies (i.e., exploration), resulting in enhanced long-term innovation (March, 1991, Audia & Goncalo, 2007). Indeed, after a successful experience, it is more difficult to detect deviations from a plan (Ellis, Mendel, & Nir, 2006), as the successful outcome confirms the validity of a prior routine (Weick, 1984, Sitkin, 1992) and builds confidence (and complacency) regarding its utility for future performance (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 1999).

Note, first of all, the wealth of citations in the preceding paragraph. Learning from failure, or "unexpected events," which is closer to the definition I use in the book, is not a fad. It is a well-researched, grounded, fact. It is also easy to avoid - "ambiguity of responsibility" gives credence to individuals who wish to distance themselves from failure.

The new research presented is also profound. The authors test four hypotheses, two of which are central to everyone's ideas of learning from failure:

Hypothesis 2: The learning effects of failure are driven by internal attribution of the failed experience. Specifically, internal attribution moderates the effect of failure on learning, such that the effect of failure on learning is more positive when the failure is attributed more internally.

Hypothesis 3: Ambiguity of responsibility decreases internal attribution and learning from failure

The experiments carried out validated both these hypotheses - test subjects who took responsibility for a failure learned more, and situations where responsibility was unclear did not provide as strong a basis for learning from the failure. This is important stuff (and, as the authors suggest, an area where more study is needed).

Go ahead and follow the failure Twitter feeds and attend the conferences if you want, but, if you really want to understand how people learn from mistakes and how to improve the environment for such learning, read "My Bad!"

Monday, June 2, 2014

Cynthia Kurtz's "Working With Stories" is out now.... buy it!

Cynthia Kurtz is one of my favorite people and biggest inspirations. Her deep understanding of the wisdom of people's ordinary stories has informed almost everything I've worked on in the past five years, including this site, the book, and 3-Minute Journal.

So I am delighted to at least modestly repay her kindness by encouraging everyone to buy her newly-released magnum opus, "Working with Stories in Your Community Or Organization: Participatory Narrative Inquiry." I just bought my copy. It discusses everything (I mean everything) you need to know about story-gathering, sensemaking and acting on what you find. It's come a long way from the first 90-page PDF doc that I downloaded in 2008. (A dog-eared, heavily annotated copy of which is still in my "Narrative" file.)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Scientific American urges drug companies to release all clinical trial data

We've advocated over and over again for groups involved in experiments to release all data and results from those experiments - even those that don't succeed. "Dark data" can open up new areas of discovery and illuminate unforeseen issues with "safe" products.

Now, Scientific American magazine is taking up the cause. An article in its June issue, "Secret Clinical Trial Data To Go Public," discusses drug companies' reluctance to share any results that don't support their marketing efforts, and suggests how to open things up. The editors write:

How well does a prescription drug work? It can be hard for even doctors to know. Pharmaceutical companies frequently withhold the results of negative or inconclusive trials. Without a full accounting, a physician who wants to counsel a patient about whether a drug works better than a sugar pill is frequently at a loss. Drug companies share only airbrushed versions of data on safety and usefulness.

The editors go on to recommend drug trial information be published in an open data system akin to Yale's cleverly-named YODA project. Our hope is that big pharma jumps in whole-heartedly. Science and health-care patients present and future (that would be all of us) need it.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

New York Times: "Error Leads IBM Researchers to a New Family of Materials"

From an article by John Markoff published on May 15:

As a research chemist at an IBM laboratory, Jeannette M. Garcia spends her days mixing and heating chemicals in pursuit of stronger and more easily recyclable plastics. Recently she followed a simple formula that required mixing three components in a beaker. Somehow she missed a step, leaving out a chemical. She returned to find her beaker filled with a hard white plastic that had even frozen the stirrer.

Dr. Garcia tried grinding the mystery material, to no avail. Then she took a hammer to the beaker to free it.

That laboratory error has led to the discovery of a new family of materials that are unusually strong and light, exhibit “self-healing” properties and can be easily reformed to make products recyclable.

The materials — two new types of synthetic polymers — could have applications for transportation. Because of their recyclability, they also could have an impact on consumer products, as well as on the industrial packaging for microelectronics components.

The findings were reported on Thursday in the journal Science by a research team at IBM’s Almaden Research Laboratory in San Jose, Calif.

There are countless stories of discoveries in chemistry made by mistake, including saccharin and the vulcanization process for rubber. Here is yet another.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Selfless leaders share their own mistakes

From "The Best Leaders Are Humble Leaders," by Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib on the HBR Blog Network, based on their research paper entitled "Inclusive Leadership: The View From Six Countries" for Catalyst Group:

To promote inclusion and reap its rewards, leaders should embrace a selfless leadership style. Here are some concrete ways to get started based on both our current research and our ongoing study of leadership development practices at one company, Rockwell Automation:

Share your mistakes as teachable moments. When leaders showcase their own personal growth, they legitimize the growth and learning of others; by admitting to their own imperfections, they make it okay for others to be fallible, too. We also tend to connect with people who share their imperfections and foibles—they appear more “human,” more like us. Particularly in diverse workgroups, displays of humility may help to remind group members of their common humanity and shared objectives....

People often feel that sharing mistakes is risky; the best way to overcome this perception is for leaders to go first, which sends two messages - everyone makes mistakes, and it's important to share them for the benefit of others.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

CEO on learning to write things down

Another story by S.D. Shibulal, CEO of Infosys, from Adam Bryant's Corner Office series.

Early on, I thought I could remember everything, so I never used to write down anything. When I was around 28, and running a big computer center, my manager would give me 10 things to do, and I would get nine done. But he always seemed to know which one I didn’t do. He told me: “Shibu, please get it right. Write it down.” That changed my life. Now I’m very disciplined. I write it down, and I take care of each item and follow through.

Bryant's new book is called Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation.

Monday, May 5, 2014

A young statistician learns the importance of communicating data simply

A story from Thomas Redman, PhD, featured on the HBR Blog Network:

I trained as a statistician and first joined Bell Labs in the network performance group. A year or two after I started, it was time for my first big presentation at AT&T Headquarters. I completed my prep well in advance and rehearsed carefully. Then I was off to the big meeting.

It could not have gone worse. The only impressions I left were bad ones. Young hothead that I was, I blamed everyone but myself, including the audience: “The average manager up here can’t even understand a pie chart!”

An established veteran of many such presentations looked me square in the eye and said, “Of course not, Tom. It’s your job to make it so they don’t have to.”

That was my first lesson in data presentation. As a data presenter, you face a tall order in getting others to comprehend and believe data. You have to think through your audience’s background and present data in ways that advance their understanding. The best way to do so is to make your plots and the accompanying explanations easy to understand.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Infosys CEO learns not to invent answers to questions he doesn't know

From Adam Bryant's Corner Office series. Bryant's new book is called Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation. This story is from S.D. Shibulal, CEO of Infosys.

I...quickly learned that you have to be honest, transparent and fair. We have 10 development centers in India, and I travel to visit them. Somebody once asked me a question I didn’t know the answer to, but I invented some answer. About three weeks later, I went to another center, and somebody asked the same question, and I invented some answer again. They immediately said, “Well, you were at another center and you said something else.” I promised myself then that if I don’t know, I will say: “I don’t know the answer. I’ll find out and let you know.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Board member applauds executive for explaining a big mistake

From Adam Bryant's interview with Intuit CEO Brad Smith, in the New York Times Corner Office column. Bryant's latest book is, "Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation."

I spent six years in a job prior to Intuit, doing a range of jobs in marketing. I started the Internet division during the dot-com boom. I convinced the board to give us $40 million to sign two e-commerce deals, telling them that we could sell more things online than our sales force could sell. I told them we wouldn’t even need a sales force. After $40 million, we sold just 15 units.

So when I went to meet with the board, I figured that I was going to get fired. I called my parents, and my dad said: “Just go in and say: ‘Here’s what I thought. Here’s what happened. Here’s where I was wrong, and here’s what I would do differently.’ ”

I did that, and when I was finished, one board member started clapping and said: “You know what? You are more valuable to us now for three reasons. The first reason is that you won’t make that mistake again, so we want you to go and make a bunch of new mistakes. The second is that your engineers built a killer product, and now our salespeople have something they can put in their sales bag. And the third is the competition is all trying to convince the street that we’re old school and they’re going to do everything online. You just proved that that’s not likely, so we’re smarter as a result.”

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A famous publishing brand is established by mistake

From the New York Times obituary of IDC founder Patrick McGovern, about his first publication:

High demand for his database made him realize that he had found a market himself. In 1967, Mr. McGovern conceived of an industry newspaper he intended to call Computer World News. With a computer conference in Boston looming, he and others put together an eight-page prototype in less than two weeks. Then a last-minute problem arose: A typesetter found that in using a type size appropriate for a publication title, he could fit only “Computer” and “World” in the space allowed on the page, and without a space between. And so Computerworld came to life.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Tax preparation pioneer Henry Bloch on the value of starting small

Henry Bloch, founder and former CEO of H&R Block, on an early entrepreneurial lesson (from an interview in Entrepreneur Magazine):

Like so many young entrepreneurs, my brother and I made plenty of mistakes. But I can say with a high degree of certainty, we would not have become as successful as we did had we not made those mistakes and learned from them.

For instance, my brother and I asked our great aunt for a gift of $50,000 to start our venture. She ended up doing us a favor -- she turned us down. Instead, she gave us a loan for $5,000. Had she given us $50,000, we would have failed in a big way. We would have hired a staff to implement a business plan that we later learned was flawed. Without much capital at the beginning, we were forced to start small and, fortunately, to fail small.

My brother and I struggled for eight years before we became successful. We learned a tremendous amount in those years, and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Help star performers prepare for future setbacks

Today I read a very interesting piece by Sarah Green in the HBR Blog Network. Entitled "Star Performers Need Extra Affirmation After a Setback," it references a study by Jennifer Carson Marr of Georgia Institute of Technology and Stefan Thau of London Business School, which studied baseball players who lost their salary arbitration hearings. The study finds that the performance of star players suffered after the ruling, even though they had plenty of incentive (playing for next year's salary) to succeed. The analogy is that star performers in business can suffer the same pitfall after a career setback, such as a failed project.

The analogy makes sense - business stars don't fail very often, and tend to be showered with praise along the way. An objective failure, therefore, can feel devastating since it's so out of step with the norm.

Green recommends affirmation for star performers and their managers to help them deal with these situations. I'd also add some tough love - before the fact. As part of the career development process, managers should work with stars to expose them to low-risk failure situations - i.e., a small project that faces significant obstacles - to practice managing adversity and resourcefulness. An example would be applying to a conference to do a speech when the organizers are looking for more-senior executive speakers.

If the employee wins the assignment, it's a significant achievement. If she is rejected, the downside is very low, and the lessons of adversity and failure are experiences. When the bigger failure inevitably comes, she will be better prepared to handle it.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Late-night emails intimidate CEO's staff

From Adam Bryant's Corner Office series. Bryant's new book is called Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation. This story is from Dawn Zier, CEO of NutriSystem.

I had my first child when I was 30, and it was very important for me to have balance. So my idea of balance was that I would go to work during the day, come home, spend time with my child, and then after everybody went to sleep, I would do work. So it was very common for people to get emails from me at 2 or 3 in the morning.

It was just my way of managing my life, but what I didn’t realize is that it freaked everybody out. Somebody said, “Do you really expect us to get back to you at 3:30 in the morning?” I said: “No, I assume that you’re sleeping. I don’t have that expectation at all.” But the feedback I got was that it was disturbing the people that I was managing.

I ended up having a meeting with my team. I’m pretty direct and big on candor, and I had to explain to them that we all need to find our balance. I expect a lot out of you, and you expect a lot out of me. This is just my way of doing my job, and I’m not going to prescribe how you do your job. I don’t expect you to be up all night. After we had a direct conversation about it, everybody was cool with it. So one of my early lessons was really trying to be attuned to things and making sure that you have an open dialogue so things don’t become issues.

We are always looking for more stories to add to the Mistake Bank - especially if you're NOT a CEO. Contact us - mistakebank (at) caddellinsightgroup (dot) com if you have something to share, anonymously or otherwise.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A former CFO makes a deal on a handshake - and pays the price

Another story from Adam Bryant's Corner Office series. Bryant's new book is called Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation. This story is from Noreen Beaman, CEO of Brinker Capital.

I was about 35 and Brinker’s C.F.O., but I went into sales to get that experience. And I went out and I made a deal on a handshake. Because I was C.F.O. and had been so careful for the 10 years before, the people I worked for thought, “She’ll never do anything foolish.” So of course I did. I closed a big deal on a handshake, and it blew up. I should have been fired.

I lost all my political capital at Brinker. I had been there for more than 12 years, and now I was in the penalty box. But I worked really hard at sales and became the No. 1 salesperson — only because I worked hard, not because I’m a natural salesperson. I had to really dig in and do something I wasn’t good at.

But it made me more accessible to people I worked with. They still joke about it today, though it was 20 years ago. They’ll say, “Oh, remember when you did that?” And I’ll say, “Yes, I remember when I did that.” It made me have more humility.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Amazing Race is all about "mistakes and miscalculations"

This whole race is a comedy of errors... and [winning requires] accepting each others' errors and making up for them later.

Chip & Reichen, outside an airport in India, on The Amazing Race season 4, which they eventually won.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Grantland editor acknowledges serious mistakes with transgender story, apologizes

Last week, the sports site Grantland (an excellent site with great writing, by the way) posted a long piece by reporter Caleb Hannan on his search for Dr. V., the mysterious creator of a new-fangled golf putter. The reporter located the inventor and then, to his surprise, discovered that the inventor was a female who had been born male. This added many new layers to the story, including the author outing Dr. V. to one of her investors. Last October, Dr. V. committed suicide.

Reaction to the contents of the piece and the decision to publish it was swift and cutting. (Here's Maria Dahvana Headley, someone quoted in the Mistake Bank book, with a cogent analysis.) Grantland itself, after a few days, ran an essay from Christina Kahrl, an contributor who is also a director of GLAAD. (ESPN is the parent company of Grantland.) Finally, Bill Simmons, the site's creator and editor-in-chief, discussed Hannan's article and the decisions around publishing it. Simmons acknowledges significant mistakes and apologizes for running the article.

I was originally planning to discuss Simmons' apology in detail as a lesson on decisionmaking, reflection, and atonement. On further reflection, I've concluded that any lessons learned from this mistake, no matter how useful, are trivial compared the life of Dr. V. Our deepest condolences to her family and friends.

New manager learns he needs to let his team communicate

From the Corner Office interview of Girish Novani of eClinicalWorks, in the New York Times. Adam Bryant, who writes the Corner Office columns, has a new book based on that work: Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation.

My first role was at Fidelity Investments. I was 27. I had this team of five people, and every one of them went to my boss and told him that I was terrible because I had stifled them from talking to others, and that I only wanted them to tell me what was going on. One person said, “We can’t be on his team.”

I changed pretty much overnight. If people felt that they couldn’t really maneuver as easily as they did before I was a team leader, then I wasn’t doing my job. A team leader should be a coach.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Author Gary Shteyngart learns a hard lesson about the American culture

Gary Shteyngart, acclaimed author of books such as Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story, has just published a memoir with the delightful title Little Failure (the cover picture is perfect). This story from the book discusses his family's encounter with an American tradition soon after their immigration to the US from the Soviet Union in 1979, when the author was seven years old.

An official letter arrives in our mailbox. MR. S. SHITGART, YOU HAVE ALREADY WON $10,000,000.00!!! Sure, our last name is misspelled rather cruelly, but cardstock this thick does not lie, and the letter is from a major American publisher, to wit the Publishers Clearing House. I open the letter with shaking hands, and...a check falls out. 
Our lives are about to change. I run down the stairs to the courtyard of our apartment complex. "Mama, Papa, we won! We won! My millionery!" We are millionaires!"
"Uspokoisya," my father says. Calm down. "Do you want an asthma attack?" But he is nervous and excited himself. Tak, tak. Let us see what we have here....
We sit down and, using our collective four-hundred-word English vocabulary, begin to unravel the many documents before us. If we take the ten-million-dollar check to the bank tomorrow, how long before we can buy a new air conditioner? Wait it says here that... Yes, we have already won the ten million dollars, no disputing that, but a panel of judges still has to award the money to us. First we must fill out the winner's form and select five national magazines that will be sent to us free, or at least the first issue of each will be free, and then the Americans will likely send us the rest of the money. Fair enough.... 
We sign everywhere we need to, even places we probably don't need to. We sign the fucking envelope. "Write neater!" Mama shouts at Papa. "No one can understand your signature!" "Calm yourself, calm yourself." "Get the stamps!" "Wait with your stamps already, what does it say. No postadzh necessary." The Publishers Clearing House has even taken care of that little detail. Classy. ...
We find out the truth quickly and brutally. At their respective workplaces, my parents are told that the Publishers Clearing House regularly sends out the YOU HAVE ALREADY WON TEN MILLION DOLLARS missive and that these are routinely thrown in the trash by the savvy native-born. Depression settles over our nonmillionaire shoulders. In Russia the government was constantly telling us lies - wheat harvest is up, Uzbek baby goats give milk at an all-time high, Soviet crickets sing the "Internationale" in honor of Brezhnev visit to local hayfield - but we cannot imagine that they would lie to our faces like that here in America, the land of the This and the home of the That.

Remember, 2014 is Story Year on the Mistake Bank! If you have a story you'd consider sharing, email us at mistakebank (at) caddellinsightgroup (dot) com and let us know.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Taking care of visitors - a sales mistake

Many years ago, I worked on a proposal to sell an information security system to Hong Kong Telecom. I worked for a very large company and the proposal was a joint effort of our Hong Kong team and our telecom experts in the US (I was part of the US team).

After submitting the proposal, we learned that the HKT procurement team would be visiting the finalists for a site visit and product demonstration. We let the team know they should rent a car at Boston Logan Airport, and gave them directions to where our office was. We had a very nice presentation, served a sandwich lunch, and they left.

Within a few days, we learned HKT had eliminated us from contention.

That seemed to be the end of it. But some weeks later, we had a call with one of our internal security leaders. He talked to us about our proposal and solution. It turned out he knew the key executive at HKT because they served on an international security committee together. Soon thereafter, we learned that we had another chance at the business, and were invited to spend a day presenting to the company at their Hong Kong offices.

In Hong Kong, we were met at the airport, driven to our hotel, and our entire week of meals, shopping, etc., had been planned. I had never been treated with such care by strangers before. Our presentation day went flawlessly, and we learned that the executive had invited our whole team to dinner at his club that night.

At dinner, we laughed and drank and ate amazing food. Sometime during the night, he asked me, "Do you know why you were eliminated from contention?"


"How have you been treated since you've been in Hong Kong?"

And I told him.

"When we came to visit you in Boston, you didn't even arrange our transportation. We had to rent a car and find your office outside town. Do you know we don't even drive here? We were so upset after that visit that we didn't think your company was suitable to supply us with anything. Luckily, your colleague" - the security guy, who was also at the dinner - "called me and asked if we could give you another chance to prove yourself. And so you did. You will be getting the business."

We did not view the HKT team's visit from their perspective, but from ours. For us, renting a car at Logan Airport and driving to Waltham was no problem. We also didn't understand that other countries took hosting visitors very seriously, much moreso than we did in the US. The visit to Hong Kong taught us that. From then on, when customers have shown us the courtesy to pay us a visit at our home office, I've made sure they are taken well care of, as I was all those years ago.

Monday, January 6, 2014

2014 - Story year

Hi, all,

We've been at this effort since 2007. There are more than 500 posts, roughly half stories and the rest on why embracing mistakes and failure is good for you and your business. This year, I am focusing on gathering more stories. There are lots of great stories out there from entrepreneurs and CEOs - but many fewer from customer service reps, programmers, nurses, managers, teachers, students, etc. In other words, ordinary folks. I would like to take this year and focus on gathering and sharing as many mistake stories as possible from this quieter group. I believe their stories have as much or more to teach us than any from Steve Jobs, Steve Martin or AG Lafley. But we won't know till we collect them.

So... if you have a story you'd like to share, anonymously or otherwise, or you know someone with a great story, please contact us at mistakebank (at) caddellinsightgroup (dot) com. I'm hoping to have at least one story a week to share. Join the effort to learn from mistakes!

This week... I'll share one of my stories.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Managing mistakes in business first means acknowledging they happen

Josh Patrick writes this in the New York Times blog You're the Boss:

Allowing mistakes requires that you trust your employees. You must trust that they are doing the best they can — that they aren’t trying to make mistakes. But here’s the thing: If you don’t allow mistakes, they will happen anyway. They’ll just get swept under the rug. When they are discovered, they have often become much larger problems. 
In larger companies, mistakes rarely put the company at risk. In smaller companies, they can be death blows. That’s why some owners overreact when a mistake happens, which was my inclination when I first started in business. Whenever a mistake was made, I would start screaming at whoever had made it — unless, of course, I had made it. In that case, I would pretend the mistake had never happened. It wasn’t until I learned to accept mistakes and start learning from them that our business started to grow.
 Mistakes will happen anyway. It seens obvious, but very few of us are able to recognize this and act accordingly. Recognizing they will happen anyway is the first premise of building a mistake-learning culture.