Archive for August, 2010

A learning moment about Plan B

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No, I’m not talking about that Plan B. I’m talking about backup plans (like the time I called a motel near my campsite to inquire about vacancies, just in case we needed to vacate our site due to heavy rain.)

As a compulsive planner, I really can’t help myself.  For every truly important Plan A (camping included), I generally have at least a Plan B, if not C through F.  I play to win.  I generally try to come up with many different ways to achieve an end to maximize the odds of success. This approach has worked marvelously well for me throughout my life for the things I truly cared about.  So I’ve felt smug about my great hit rate, until recently when I was challenged on my approach.

Someone who was a big champion for a Plan A noticed that I was making a Plan B, and he got noticeably upset.  He told me that my approach indicates that I was not aggressive enough in my pursuit of Plan A, that I don’t believe in it enough, and that I should channel my energy back to making the primary approach work.

So I sat back and thought about this.   Did I put any less energy in Plan A’s just because I have Plan B’s?  Definitely not.   I still chased  after the holy grail in full steam.   I simply believe in covering all of my bases since Plan A was full of risk.  Apparently this can be seen as a form of betrayal by people who are highly invested in Plan A.

As I am pretty left-brained, I find this sentiment illogical and hard to empathize with.  It appeared to me that this person was  responding emotionally, not rationally, to the situation, since I have the facts on my side.  Yet I accept that this person’s sentiment is no less valid than mine.  People Are Different And That’s OK (that was the first and most important takeaway from all my years in ethnography research.)

This was a learning moment.   I learned that I have to work harder in managing expectations in situations like this.  I am not going to stop making Plan B’s.  I just need to make it quite clear that this doesn’t mean I support Plan A any less.

I had a chat with the person, and all’s well that ended well.   I hope I’ll do a better job at managing perceptions next time.

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Measure employees by output, not hours worked

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Today I read a great post from Ben Yoskowitz’s Instigator Blog, titled “How many hours should a startup employee work?

I find myself having a flashback of a conversation on the same topic that I had with a friend in a startup.  There were a ton of milestones to be met in the next 6-9 months.  This friend was concerned about the schedule.  He thought that the way to get all this stuff done was to have everybody work 60h+ per week until all the milestones were met.

Setting the topic of burnout aside, my friend had fallen into the same trap mentioned in Ben’s post: equating hours worked with value created.   This is probably the biggest misconception for anybody leading a team.

Hours and output are at best correlated, and at worst a substitution for an analytical, thoughtful approach to team management.  An hour worked by person A is not the same as an hour worked by person B, even if they have the same job description and are working on substantially similar projects.  One should always measure an employee by their output and productivity, never blindly by the hours they put in.

I personally know a few wonderful people who I like and respect greatly on a personal level,  who work the longest hours of anybody else in their organization, but still manage to miss the most basic expectations for their work output.   A lot of times, these people were simply put in the wrong jobs.

  • The person has chosen a profession that they have low aptitude for (e.g. someone with a passion for creative writing went to engineering school and became an electrical engineer instead).  They never really “got” their chosen profession and could not meet the expectations of themselves or their supervisors in the basic functions of their job.
  • The person joined a company in a growth state, then the company did a restart.  The type of work and the way it needed to be done changed dramatically and the person is not able to adapt their work style to meet the company’s changing needs.
  • The person is a generalist who was put in a new role out of expediency (which is not unusual in a startup situation). While he or she is a hard worker, he or she doesn’t have the requisite training to pick up the skills necessary for the new role.

I also know a lot of people who I respect much less, who stay at work all day and all night to create the illusion of working hard. In reality, they spend most of this time goofing off while physically present.  I had to put one such employee on a performance improvement plan to shape up or be let go for cause.  (He did shape up with my structured improvement plan – he was at work for fewer hours and got more done thereafter.)

With these types of fundamental issues, working longer hours achieves nothing but to burn people out, strain their relationships with their loved ones, and breed resentment (if they see their coworkers putting in fewer hours than they did).  Much better to manage a team by setting expectations of work output, negotiating the deliverable dates such that they are aggressive but not completely unrealistic, and pacing the team so they work reasonable hours most of the time. Only then will they have the reserve to go the extra mile and put in an occasional couple of long weeks for a true emergency.

On Competitive Advantages

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I just stumbled across a fantastic series on bad startup pitches from Jason Cohen’s blog.  It’s titled “5 lessons from 150 startup pitches“.  I find myself agreeing violently with 3 of the 4 posts that relate to competitive advantage.

I had a recent conversation with a friend who is working on a pitch for a new venture.   The product concept is a good idea, but the way it is currently presented, it veers dangerously close to the offerings from a couple of competitors.  When I asked what the competitive advantage was, the answer was quite diffuse:  “we have Feature X, that’s our differentiator.”  “Our UI is so much better than theirs it will blow them out of the water.”

It gets worse: “Company X is charging $Y for a substantially similar service. We are going to come out of the starting gate charging 50% what they charge.”  At some point I will write a post on what not to do in pricing strategy – but that’s a conversation for another day.

So what qualifies as valid competitive advantages?  Here are some candidates.

  • First mover advantage – you are the first to solve this particular problem in this particular way. (This could work for and against a business though. It’s much easier to launch a product into an existing category than to make your own product category.)
  • Deep knowledge about your target market’s needs and wants, enabling you to build something that solves their problems better than the competition has solved their problems.
  • Special soup technology nobody can easily copy, even if they hire away your chief engineer or read and understand all of your published patent applications.
  • Deep relationships with big fish at key potential customers (if B2B) that gives you a big head start on business development.
  • A team with domain expertise that can execute at twice the speed of their competitor’s team.

What are some competitive advantages you have enjoyed in your experience?

Startup learnings

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I have been invited to give a talk to some MBA students about life in the startup landscape. I reflected on my experience and boiled it down to these bullets.   Do they match your experience?  I’d love to hear what you think.

  • Be audacious. Aim very high and fail sometimes.
  • Be open. Listen to your customers’ needs and wants.
  • Be humble. Listen to your advisers who have experience that you don’t have.
  • Be nimble. If something doesn’t work, fix it now and move on.
  • Be focused. Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing.
  • Be fact-based in decision making, but learn to trust your gut too.
  • Hire some generalists and some specialists.
  • Pace yourself while working hard. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have some fun along the way.

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