A good laugh — I've never read popular business books — now I know why

Ryan Underwood had me grinning this morning with this piece in Fast Company. A fable about fables, it chronicles the decline of a poor hapless person who actually follows all the oh-too-sweet advice in some of the “big name” business books. I loved it. He only blew it when he offers a recommendation at the end of the article.

Bonus! It's got the plot summaries of a bunch of those fable-books, so you can nod knowingly when people start talking about them.

New words

I like this piece by Seth Godwin in which he comes up with a bunch of new words to describe “great stuff” and in the course of the article makes some darn good observations about how to get a product up and running.

For example; there's a very important moment when a product becomes “remarkable” and opinion leaders start buzzing about it amongst themselves. He calls products like this “Purple Cows.” With that, people can start asking questions like “how can we make this more Purple?” A great insight, among many.

Mind-mapping software — I'm going to stick my toe in the water

David Coursey has a piece this week about MindJet’s Mind Manager software that caught my eye. I like David’s stuff a lot — like the Baby Bear he’s usually thinking about stuff that’s in the “just right” place for me, not too far out there in rocket-science exotic whacko new-idea land, but not talking about stuff that I’ve looked at six months ago and already evaluated.

read on for more observations about mind-mapping software and the community-collaboration connection… Continue reading “Mind-mapping software — I'm going to stick my toe in the water”

Product positioning — market segmentation

Laura Ries carries on in her father's footsteps, writing terrific stuff about positioning. Here's her checklist to stimulate your thinking when you're getting ready to work on where to position a product (as I am, just now).

I'm a big fan of market-segmentation and positioning, especially in the early stages of a product's life. I don't think you can come up with too many ways to segment a market when you do this kind of analysis. Laura describes several new dimensions that I'll add to my standard list.

2 for 1 — a financial management checklist *AND* resource

I'm quite taken with this index of financial management articles in INC Magazine.

They have done a great job of breaking out the topics and, while the articles are a little fluffy for my tastes, they provide a great starting point for ideas if you're stuck. Here's an example — what about doing a “trial run” of your business (or business-function, or project-deliverable) before opening the doors? Read this article to learn more about a fella that did that very thing.

What kind of decision? Command & control, consultative or consensus?

Charles Fishman has a piece in Fast Company about Whole Foods and the fella that runs it, John Mackey. So I'm breezing along, enjoying the read until I get to the veerry end, where Charles buries the following pearl.

  • Command-and-control decisions
  • These are the ones that Mackey makes himself — or the “boss” in a particular setting makes. They happen when timing doesn't permit wide consultation, or when Mackey thinks the stakes are so high that he feels that he has to decide. “I almost never make a command-and-control decision,” he says.

  • Consultative decisions
  • These are decisions that Mackey, the senior leadership team, or the appropriate group of people make — but only after wide conversation and consultation with those involved. It's the most common form of decision making at Whole Foods. “I make a ton of decisions where I consult with people I trust, with the people involved,” Mackey says.

  • Consensus decisions
  • These occur when the team involved strives for general agreement. Each team at each store meets monthly to provide a forum for this kind of decision making; among the decisions reached by consensus are hiring decisions: Every new employee must be voted onto the staff after a tryout; it takes a two-thirds yes vote from the team to stay. Even Mackey's National Leadership Team of 24 people routinely votes on decisions. “I don't overrule the National Leadership Team,” says Mackey. “I've done it maybe once or twice in all these years.”

    “I will make a decision about what kind of decision something is,” says Mackey. The most common decisions, he says, are also his favorites: “decisions that are not my decision.”

    Tarnation! That's a darn fine insight…

    Taking on a project to change the world? Lessons from founding VISA

    Every once in a while conversation will turn to trying to solve a problem that has people stumped — like the lunchtime conversation today with my friend Bruce McKendry in which we decided to take on the problem of fixing health care. Yep, you heard it here first. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

    Something Bruce said (“this is a problem that needs to be solved outside, or along side, the existing institutions”) reminded me of Dee Hock. ‘Bet you haven’t heard of Dee Hock, but your life has been influenced by his creation. He’s the person who led the project that created the VISA network and thus solved a problem that was vexing all the banks that were creating their own independent bank-card systems and going broke in the process.

    Hock’s solution was to form a new kind of entity (VISA) which allowed the banks to cooperate and compete at the same time. The story of the creation of the VISA network is a fascinating tale. Dee Hock decided to generalize from that experience and see if he could help others apply the lessons-learned to their big complicated problems.

    He made up a new word, “chaordic”, to describe this process of bringing order out of chaos and formed an organzation to carry on the work. The Chaordic Commons is their home on the ‘net.

    Read on for notes, commentary and useful links into their site… Continue reading “Taking on a project to change the world? Lessons from founding VISA”

    To centralize or to decentralize, that is the question

    Rafe Needleman, writing at ZD’s AnchorDesk, thinks that small companies are smarter than big ones when it comes to managing technology.

    I think Rafe missed the boat with this article. But it provides me a great springboard to talk about managing in a centralized way (which is what he’s describing when he talks about the big-business approach) versus a decentralized way (which is what he’s lobbying for).

    My pet theory is that companies are constantly going back and forth between centralized and decentralized management of internal resources (marketing, IS, distribution, whatever). At any given moment in time the organization is either centralizing to make operations more robust and cheaper, or they are decentralizing to make them more nimble and responsive to customer needs (which is what Rafe is proposing in his article).

    Just like kids squabbling in the back seat of the car, we’ve got to stop! that! eternal swinging back and forth between the two monolithic extremes. Neither is really the answer — the right place to be is as follows:

  • Centralized things are those for which the customers all share the same priorities.
  • Decentralized things are those where customer priorities are diverse.
  • An example or two? read on…

    Let’s take the distribution function in a consumer-products company. Who are the customers? The product managers. Do they all have the same priorities for the way their products are distributed? I dunno, depends. But if they do, then the distribution function can be centralized, made very robust and very low cost. If the needs of product managers are different (for example; some products are perishable, some aren’t) then the distribution function isn’t a good candidate for complete centralization because some product managers are going to be ill-served, and after a while they’ll bootleg their way around it because it isn’t meeting their needs.

    Another example — the IT function. Should it be centralized? I dunno, depends on what the customers need. Maybe parts of IT qualify and parts don’t. Maybe all the customers of IT have exactly the same priorities when it comes to the server farm (“I want it up all the time, really fast, and really cheap”) but different priorities when it comes to the applications that reside on the servers. In that case it makes sense to centralize the server farm and decentralize application support.

    The same can be said about almost anything a big company does — sometimes it pays to spend more money on diverse modes of function-delivery (especially if that thing is strategic), sometimes it pays to put all your eggs in one basket and blow the doors off with super capability and ultra low cost. *That’s* the way to stop the pendulum…

    This idea was shamelessly lifed from Bob Alloway, who long ago taught this to a bunch of us geeks, later went on to develop the “grades” system that was used to track the progress of US government agencies towards Y2k readiness, and has since disappeared, at least from my address book. If anybody knows what Bob is up to these days, I’m all ears.

    Mike Cohn's "Agile Estimating and Planning"

    Mike Cohn is writing a book about project management that (in the little bit of fast skimming I've done) looks like it has some very good insights about project management. His book is in draft, will be published in 2005 and you can read the draft, as it develops, here.

    This link is making the rounds of the business/project blog gang — I first came across it in Frank Patrick's Focused Performance Business Blog.

    Project management is definitely not a “one size fits all” deal. Small projects, small teams, short durations are all vastly easier to deliver on time than longer-duration/larger projects. Project managers come in sizes as well — and the ones that can deliver large projects on time are worth their weight in gold. Mike is clearly one of those and does a great job of conveying his wisdom.

    Business alignment – 5 excuses CIOs make to avoid practicing what they preach

    Susan Cram has this piece in CIO about how IT folks sometimes don't quite get around to eating their own cooking. It tickled my fancy. Here are the 5 headlines.

    The Sandbagger: “There is no way we can deliver improvements in time, quality and cost—pick two out of the three.”

    The Magician: “Investing in this new technology will transform our capability to deliver IT products and services.”

    The Lone Ranger: “IT is our business and we can responsibly invest internally without involving formal governance.”

    The Visionary: “I can't say when, but this is going to be big—really big.”

    The Hostage-Taker: “If we don't do this, we will sacrifice our future.”

    I've met all of these folks at one time or another. Here's my antidote. Always always ALWAYS justify projects based on the following;

    – revenue improvement
    – cost reduction
    – quality improvement
    – response-time (of the organization) reduction

    The tastiest projects do all 4 of these things simultaneously. Don't forget to go back after the project is done and actually measure the durn thing to see whether it delivered on the promises made.

    Regulating by layer

    Back from my speech this morning. I had a great conversation with Steve Kelley about the “layer cake” problem that VoIP regulation presents. After scribbling a few things on a pad of paper, it was time to give my talk but I thought it would be a Good Thing to get the scribbles into this blog. Read on for the details…

    Suppose you decided to approach regulating VoIP (or any other telecommunications thingy) from the standpoint of regulating differently depending on what layer that thingy was. Here’s a picture of the layers;

    The bottom layer is the physical link between you and your provider. It could be copper wire to the phone company, coax cable to the cable company, fiber optic cable, a microwave radio link, a laser link, etc. It’s the physicall stuff that makes the connection. Very expensive to put in, very unlikely that you’re going to have these connections to more than one place. Aka a natural monopoly.

    The middle layers make the connection between your physical stuff and the physical stuff at the destination. Phone switching (SS7), TCP/IP, routers, switches, all fall into this layer. It’s where ISPs and CLECs sit, and it’s much easier to have competition at this layer — witness all the ISPs and CLECs that popped up in the mid-90’s.

    The top layer is the application that you actually use to get things done. An email browser, a web browser, a database, or a VoIP software/hardware package all fall in this top layer and there are virtually no barriers to competition at this layer. There are lots and lots of web pages, VoIP phone companies, email providers and so forth and the problems of monopoly are virtually non-existant. So one view would be to say — “hey, there’s no need to regulate VoIP at all, it’s just an application.”

    But wait, what if we added the notion of a “service” to the mix. We might say, let’s regulate similar things in similar ways. Here’s another picture;

    Now, in addition to thinking about layers, we think about the “service” that is running across those layers. Perhaps we should regulate all TV the same, all phone-calls the same, etc. If you deliver TV pictures over cable or the Internet, what’s the difference? They’re TV pictures and it’s silly to have completely different regulation for each — they’re doing the same thing. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. In the case of VoIP, the argument would be — “either regulate VoIP like POTS, or remove the regulation from POTS” and put them on a level playing field.

    But wait… What about the technology that’s being used? Doesn’t that enter into the discussion as well? Here’s a picture;

    This is a tricky thing — especially in light of the current enthusiasm for protecting “The Internet” from regulation. If you make regulatory decisions based on technology, perhaps the baby goes out with the bathwater. Depending on where I wanted the outcome to wind up, I could pick my argument to use the technology dimension to trump all the other dimensions.

    There are more dimensions, but I don’t know how to draw pictures with any more dimensions than 3, so I’ll stop here. I think the point of this ramble is that the regulatory picture around VoIP can be “segmented” a lot of different ways. If I were trying to push an argument, I would put this segmentation into my bag of tricks and use it to push things into a configuration that favored my outcome.

    An interesting approach to controlling email

    Alison Overholt wrote Intel's got too much email in the March 2001 issue of Fast Company. I don't exactly know why it boiled to the surface for me, but I thought the list of do's and don'ts was a good one.

    Of course, this was in that innocent age when viruses and spam didn't comprise 90% of email traffic. I'm hopeful that we'll return to that state of affairs within a year — the current spam/virus situation simply can't deteriorate much further before the big kids (Microsoft, Yahoo, etc.) arrive at a mutually-agreeable technical solution.

    Thoughts on "trust"

    Robert Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau wrote this piece — The Enemies of Trust — for the APPA recently.

    While I enjoyed the article and highly recommend it, I found it made something simple into something more complicated, at least for me.

    The lesson I learned during a CDC management-training seminar many (many!) years ago has held me in good stead.

    Quote:

    Trust is built on making promises you can keep, and then keeping your promises

    The tricky bit that often gets overlooked is to focus hard on the first half of that little bromide. We get in trouble when we too-easily enter into promises. Then, when we don't keep them, people stop trusting us.

    Takes a long time to build trust, and it can be gone in an instant. Pay attention to those promises-made…

    New Groove on the way

    I'm a huge fan, and long time user of, Groove — one of the “Internet aware” sequels to Lotus Notes. I use it on projects when I come across fellow-addicts although I've never been very good at evangelizing new users into the fold. This is one of those things that you have to come to at your own speed, I guess.

    Anyway, the new version (3.0) is due to come out next week and looks pretty darn nifty to me. One of the big complaints that many of us have had is that it's dang slow, both launching and switching between workspaces, which really gets annoying. All the Groovies are saying that this new version fixes that, which may go a long way towards bringing more converts into the fold.

    Not freeware, but a very good value. It's got some pretty nifty “always on” encryption built in and I like the way copies of the shared workspaces reside on every members' computer. That saved my bacon one time when a computer crash wiped out the work on one team-member's computer and we could get them right back up to speed by pushing the workspace over to their backup machine.

    Ah lahk et…

    Ah… a true pearl — management lessons from housework

    This is an absolute gem by Hillary Johnson… The subtitle “It's time to throw Sun Tzu out with the trash” is what hooked me.

    She's quoting from Cheryl Mendelson and Harry Bates' Home Comforts : The Art And Science Of Keeping House — which looks like a book to grab.

    Sun Tzu wrote “The Art of War” and is widely quoted by management gurus as the font of all wisdom. Hillary blows that notion up in this piece, drawing extensively on ideas from “Home Comforts.” I'm not gonna extract the list, you have to go read this one yourself.

    I spent a long time managing by avoiding the behavior of Dilbert's boss. Now I've got a new light to follow. Completely right on…