Jeff Bezos’ “Regret Minimization Framework”

March 4, 2010

A friend (Thanks Morgan!)  just passed this great video of Jeff Bezos talking about his thought process when deciding to leave his “good job” to take a flyer and found Amazon.com. I love the way he frames it. Essentially, when I’m 80 and looking back, how can I minimize my disappointment with paths not taken? Stated differently, how do I follow my heart? If I do that and it doesn’t work out I may be OK. But if I go counter to my heart and it doesn’t work out, I’ll be bitter.

Take a look.  Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwG_qR6XmDQ


Managing Your Priorities Over Time

February 28, 2010

I was reconnecting with good friends and former colleagues this week and was struck by a few common threads. I got a few blog post ideas from them, but the one I’ll focus on is the impact of stability versus change as well as different categories of priorities in your personal and professional life and the impact your life stage can have on your emphasis.

In three different conversations in one day with executives running significant operations, all had personal commentary on where they were in their life and had thoughtfully come to their own conclusions. Each was trading off effort and engagement in career with personal career goals beyond current job and also against their life & family realities.

I see the same thing with my students. Some people have tremendous career ambitions, some merely want good work and fair compensation to fund their lives and goals beyond work. Many haven’t decided where they fall on that continuum. That’s part of the struggle. And by the way, the answer is different at different points in your life.

The tough part is sometimes we have to choose. Advice that looks like “you can have it all” strikes me as a partial truth. First – “all of what?” I’ve written on defining your goals before. Suffice it to say, you have to actually decide on some priorities along the way or circumstances will decide for you.

I’m going to avoid all my “what do you want” and “will that make you happy” commentary and focus on thinking specifically about how many moving parts do you have in your career and life at one time.

Balancing Priorities

A former boss once commented “you can have it all, but usually not all at once”. I think this is exactly right. We go through cycles in our career and it’s important to recognize that most people can’t be “cranked up” all the time. You’ll burn out.

I’d personally group needs into:

A) Career/professional (job, promotion, pay etc.)

B) Personal/Emotional (family, friends, health etc.)

C) Meaning (spirituality, community, impact beyond yourself etc.)

D) Intellectual (learning, growing, excitement etc.)

This mirrors other writers (I just can’t remember who I’m parroting).  Anyway, the categories are roughly MECE and broadly representative. I visualize these as a “stacked bar” chart representing energy (not the same as time) applied to these 4 categories and the distribution changing over time. (OMG – this sounds so much more new-agey than I mean it to).

So let’s deconstruct me as an example. I have definitely “red-lined it” a few times and dialed it down at others. There have clearly been reasons that I switched roles or jobs that went beyond “career”.

  • After undergrad, I pursued a History PhD. I’d say that was a bit about career, but much more about intellectual. I also married Michele here – so personal was pretty high as well. We had a nice quality of life. I had things I had to find out, but was able to do it without much “sacrifice” (beyond income).
  • MBA was much more about career and “growing up”. All the materials was new, we moved to MN and I worked really long hours to get up to speed. We did move closer to family though, hitting a bit on personal.
  • Consulting was definitely about career and involved very long hours, travel and lots of sacrifices. But I learned al lot as well. I consciously chose the challenge precisely because I thought it would stretch me and expose me to many situations I would never have seen otherwise or at least do it in a lot less time. Mission accomplished.
  • Coming back to the Carlson School to help launch the Consulting Enterprise was more about personal and intellectual. We were starting a family and I wanted more control of my time. Also – for me the meaning category runs through most jobs I’ve had. I enjoy situations that involve teaching, coaching and working with people on their development.
  • The move to 3M was about “the itch” in career. I was still career progression, compensation and corporate challenge oriented. An opportunity to work on interesting things in corporate strategy at a highly regarded global corporation was too much to pass up. I got to work on cool business problems, hire and develop MBA talent and ultimately run a global business. I had more control over my life than in consulting, but was losing it as I had larger responsibilities. In my last year at 3M I hit a personal life “red-line” with the birth of our 3rd child and the deaths of both my parents in a 6 month period. Lots of things became clearer to me in terms of priorities.
  • The move back to Carlson was about turning up the dial on meaning, personal and refocusing the career basket. I probably do better on intellectual too. I’m happy as a clam with where I am right now. I can coach youth soccer, be at home for dinner most night and enjoy diverse work. Also – the challenges in my work environment don’t bug me that much. Frustrations are muted when you like what your doing and can sleep at night.

The point of the walk through time is to show how differently the priorities were over time and how out of whack you can get. I have had extended periods where I was definitely “draining the tank” and others where I was filling my tank” emotionally.

Each of my friends had come to terms with their need for some emphasis of the personal over the career either in terms of time away to refill or an emphasis on intellectual needs. They were also managing to put things into motion to do this, rather than sitting back and complaining.

So are you conscious of how you are spending your energy and is it what you want it to be?

How Many Learning Curves Are You On?

I think many of us struggle with the balance between external challenges (and the professional satisfaction and recognition that comes from them) and personal feelings and needs (like family, private time, relaxation etc.). When you are ambitious it is often hard to achieve balance. Every new problem or work situation is interesting and could be career advancing. Similarly, we tend to prioritize the more “urgent” things and put off things that aren’t screaming for our attention. Things like working out, going to the doctor, taking a long lunch with a loved one.

So think about how much pressure you’re putting on yourself in how many different areas. I describe it sometimes as answering the question, “how many learning curves are you on at once?” If I take a new job in a new industry in a new city – a lot. If I’m moving into a new role in the same group I’ve been in for 2 years – one. Big difference in how much time and energy get expended. So be conscious of this and manage it as best you can. Don’t take on too many changes all at the same time if you aren’t really prepared for it.

Also – some may be imposed on you. My parents passing away certainly wasn’t a choice but it imposed estate planning, long-distance real estate transactions and emotional trauma when I already had a full plate. Still had to manage my P&L and be around for three small kids and Michele. Something had to give. It was sleep and my health.

Never forget to be open to living life as it comes, not in the future. Whatever plan you have will have to bump up against the reality of other’s plans and the universe. The act of planning and thinking some of this through will help you better respond to unplanned opportunities as they come along.

So I encourage you to think about the categories I suggest or come up with your own. Be conscious of what you’re trying to get out of the activities you engage in along the way. You can’t get time back and sometimes put yourself under unreasonable pressure to maximize everything at once.


Bode Miller is Very Zen – Self Evaluation and Pride

February 20, 2010

I was struck this week by the Winter Olympics. Athletes spend the better part of their young lives training for these events, some of which you get one shot and it takes less than 2 minutes. You couldn’t blame a person who had a shot at winning for being focused on their result.

So I was struck by Bode Miller’s comments after his down hill bronze-medal run. I am paraphrasing here (can’t find precise quote), but his comment was something like “When I finished, I closed my eyes and thought ‘am I happy with that run?’ and I was. Then I looked at the time.” He was going to be OK with the “result” on the scoreboard having self-assessed the run as a success.

To me, that demonstrates a level of personal and professional maturity that I wish for people. I encourage people to develop their own sense of what “excellent” performance looks like for them. We are so often externally motivated that you can get too hung up on the result and lose a sense of perspective. You can also lose track of what you can control vs. externalities that are beyond you.

In an interview I was reading today, Miller notes that he looks back on many of his crashes and DNFs (did-not-finish) with affection.  Based on his break-neck style, I assume this comes from the spirit of “I was going for it and didn’t get it, but went down swinging”.  So this week on the downhill he determined that he let it rip down the hill and his place was his place, but he did his best.

A former boss liked to point out a 2X2 matrix with “result” as one axis with “good/bad” as the two options and “process” as the other, also with “good/bad”. So the resulting payout grid had 4 options. His point was often that the “good process/bad result” was generally a better one over the long term than the “bad process/good result” one. The rationale being that good process you can control and doing the right things will generally lead to better outcomes. You can do things poorly in the short term and get a decent result, but that’s probably not sustainable. It also helps point out that you can’t control everything, so control what you can.

This ties back to what I was saying about Miller. He trained relentlessly and wanted to go fast. He pushed himself, risking potential crashes to be fast. He also impressed with his willingness to risk all. He wasn’t holding back. Fearless, he went for it. Having gotten to the bottom, he reflected on his own self-assessment of “process” before he checked to see “result”. The result was excellent (note – not 1st place), but he was personally satisfied first.

If you can develop an internal sense of excellence and be sure to satisfy yourself first, you can deflect a lot of heart ache along the way. If all you care about is the outcome – you’ll be very invested in a lot of things beyond your control.

Nobody likes to lose or not do well, but it’s a competitive world. Sometimes you do your best and the other person is better. Sometimes you win.  Internal pride and sense of perspective will help you perform well and weather difficult results when they occasionally occur.


Go abroad if you can

January 23, 2010

I just returned from a great two week stay Guangzhou, China teaching a graduate seminar and have been reflecting on the time my family and I spent in Shanghai when I worked for 3M, as well as other international experiences I’ve had both in school and during my career. My conclusion (which is probably obvious) is to take any opportunities you can to get outside your personal bubble and go struggle in another culture for awhile. You’ll learn a lot of things, some of them surprising. Any trip is good, extended stays are better.

This recent trip was such a joy in part because I had some China experience and most people on the trip had not been before. I got to re-experience learning a lot of things. It was fun to smile to myself as someone made some personal discovery and to see the students (both American and Chinese) piecing together a more nuanced view of the other culture.

In my undergraduate management class, I often make a point about learning in theory versus learning in practice. For the “in practice” part, there’s nothing like diving in. You can read all you want about another country (and you should if you’re interested), but the experience of how people actually live, work, think etc. is so much richer. And it forces you to confront basic realities that are not always well documented in the literature. It also puts you in situations where you have to be more personally resourceful than you would normally need to be in your life at home.

Here is my unscientific list of reasons why it’s worth doing:

It’s interesting.

You never know what you are going to see or learn on a given day. You may see a famous piece of art at the Louvre (and believe me it’s better to see it live than in a photo) or see unexpected everyday joys. Often it’s the mundane that becomes a joy. Street food in many countries can be a revelation. If you have a curious mind, any trip to a foreign country

It’s hard.

You’ll be challenged to overcome obstacles that are never an issue at home. Figuring out another city’s Metro, ordering dinner in another language, getting around if nothing’s in your language – all of it builds confidence and character. You’ll end up in situations that create more hardships than is common at home. You always figure something out, even if it’s “suboptimal” and you survive. Best, you get a new story.

You’ll learn to think differently.

People don’t see the world in the same way or through the same lens. I’ve come to realize that the base cultural assumptions about the world and what matters are very different around the world. Again, this may seem obvious. But there’s a difference between reading a concept and knowing it in your head and being surrounded by the other culture and experiencing the differences. I am a big believer in making your self a minority somewhere. The biggest cultural learning experiences in my life have all been immersive experiences where I was one of a very few (or the only) white, American males.

I teach about “high and low context cultures”. Well, you’ll understand this difference if you spend time immersed in the one that’s the opposite of yours. You have to adapt. No matter what you do, you will have “Lost in Translation” moments. But you will get better at avoiding them or at least realizing they have happened.

An example from this trip involved basic thought process. The student teams I had were posed a series of case questions by Lenovo (the computer company). The American students took a very analytical, top down logical approach. As one of the American students observed in a wrap up meeting, the team was headed straight down this path in looking at how to evaluate power in OEM/Supplier relationships in the PC/laptop industry when a Chinese colleague suggested maybe the team was missing something important. What followed was a brief description of guanxi and the importance of relationships in supply chains in China and the Pearl River delta. The team learned both an important local business concept (and as an instructor I was pumped that it was “emergent” learning) and a cultural one. The team had been steamrolling ahead and had to slow down to allow broader input from a team member from a “high context” culture. By the way, both approaches are “right”. They collectively reached a much better recommendation to Lenovo than they would have achieved independently. Cool.

The world gets bigger/smaller.

Whichever way you think about it, you will have a connection to and at least basic understanding of events around the world. My wife wasn’t that interested in China before we lived there several years ago. Now we have a running dialogue about every China headline. Whether it be political (information control – Google is the latest) or quality of life (health/food safety – heavy metals in toys is the latest), we both have an opinion based on experience. It has enriched out relationship and our kids view of the world.

You’ll have a clearer perspective on your own country.

I think we learn as much or more about our own culture when we travel to others’. You are forced to confront basic assumptions and compare/contrast. Often we assume where we’re from is “normal” or “how things are”/ These base assumptions rapidly dissolve when you see how differently other culture live.

For Americans visiting Western Europe, there’s the stereo-typical work-life balance debate as well as the role of government in everyday life. Another common realization I see among people is the realization of how wealthy the US is. The average American has a lot of stuff and (by world standards) a very nice home/living situation. I usually come home appreciating what I have even more than I already did. But you also see possible alternate realities.

You’ll be better at what you do.

Anything that broadens your perspective and forces you to think differently enhances your ability to think critically as well as relate to others. In my view, creativity comes from having a broad perspective, being able to see patterns and metaphors and being able to extrapolate or apply them in totally new ways. Travel and immersion is one path to this.

From a pure business perspective, you’ll better understand how radically different markets are. The Chinese consumer is not the same as the American consumer. Value chains look different and are more or less mature etc. My students were amazed by how manual many processes were in China. Even at the Honda plant. All sorts of macro-economic lessons about labor vs. capital became much more tangible when observed.

(Kidding…sort of) Your view of what is edible will expand.

Not too much needs to be said here. Suffice it to say I’ve eaten jellyfish, salamander, duck tongue/feet/colon, parts of a pig we don’t eat at home and all sorts of other delicacies. J And the longer you stay the more you’ll have to concede. A buddy of mine just had to “eat local” because he literally couldn’t find any of his go-to foods.

There are lots of other great reasons, but that’s my list for now.

A few other closing thoughts:

  • Any international/cross-cultural experience is valuable. Do what you can to have them.
  • Be brave and an explorer. I have a former student who was conflicted about high profile consulting career vs. passion for travel and culture. In the end he’s lived in Germany and is studying Mandarin to go teach English in China for a year. What an adventure!
  • The more immersive the better. The longer and more “local” you can get the more you’ll learn.
  • Don’t be afraid of language barriers. I am a lazy/sloppy student of languages. I think I have disappointed every instructor I’ve had. Latin, French, German and worst of all – my poor Chinese tutor (I think I embarrassed my whole country in addition to my ancestors. Sadly, I think she took it as her personal failing.). Despite that I have had great times and no major problems travelling all over the world. As I say above, you figure things out, satisfice and make do.
  • People are warm and friendly in most places. I have never been anywhere that people weren’t curious about Americans and at least generally warm and helpful.
  • You’ll be surprised at the joy you will take in small victories. Just figuring out the lay of the land, or how a bank transaction works in another language become epic accomplishments to be celebrated.
  • Take chances as they come and jump on them. Your life situation changes. Sometimes you have time, sometimes you have money. Use what you have when you have it. Take a semester abroad in college, do a church mission trip to build homes, take a foreign assignment…but do it. I have been fortunate to have work opportunities that helped enable mine and my family’s’ experiences, but there are tons of ways outside of work to get it done.

Creative and Critical Thinking at B-Schools

January 13, 2010

Here’s an interesting piece from the NYT’s regarding some innovations in b-school curriculum. (Thanks to Kyle for the link). 

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/business/10mba.html

I’m encouraged by what many schools (particularly Rotman and Stanford) are doing to encourage both divergent and integrative thinking. I often feel our curriculum gets very functionally anchored and students struggle to pull broader concepts together as they move through school when most subject matter has been relatively functionally specific.

I feel that there aren’t “marketing” problems or “finance” problems. There are business problems that require diverse expertise and perspectives to arrive at the best solutions. Our CSOM Enterprise programs help us deliver situations that force students to do this. It’s interesting to see how some other schools are adressing the same issues.


Dealing With Ambiguity and Murky Questions

January 2, 2010

One of the biggest differentiators I see among people is their ability to deal with ambiguity. We coach people to work with clients or bosses to understand what expectations are, but I worry that we go too far or the message is taken too literally. A professional that wants a dynamic career has to be able to balance understanding expectations with an ability to create a path on their own.

I really struggle to articulate what I mean because there certainly is an “it depends” quality to this discussion. What I’m talking about here is the ability to face a murky situation and make headway. I am NOT suggesting people ignore or not seek feedback on direction. But often you are being asked to figure it out because people don’t know the answer. If they did, they wouldn’t be asking you.

I want to talk about several different ways this struggle can play out.

Thought Process

First there is the situation where people really want to put effort into the problem, but there are cognitive reasons they are floundering. I would cluster the “flounderers” into two broad (and unscientific) categories, linear and abstract thinkers.

Linear thinkers want to know the straightest line to the answer and put together a clear Gantt chart and work plan to grind out the answer. The problem is often that the question isn’t even clear. There’s a natural iteration and struggle in projects or situations that are fuzzy. You have to be willing to work the situation, material and people through some fuzziness and not know exactly what the output will look like. You have to be willing to remain patient and positive while working through rounds of starts and stops etc.

The abstract folks are often the opposite of the linear gang. They are so focused on all the interesting combinations and permutations of the problem space or the situation that nothing ever gets committed to print and lots and lots of interesting conversations result in little if any progress. There’s often a reluctance here to “commit” to any specific path because we might not know and there could be a “better” or more ideal answer etc.

So what’s the solution? Recognize your own style and that of the group/team you’re working with. Commit to putting your ideas in print, but recognize that it will iterate A LOT the more ambiguous the question. I’ll talk more about iteration below. My generic answer to most of these situations is to put a timeline on it and start committing ideas to print and circulating them to others for iteration.

The iteration cycle is critical and often where people fall down. They mistake being asked a question with needing to answer it by themselves. Getting good thoughts in front of people early leads to more cycles of improvement and depth in the final product.

Lack of “Appropriate” Effort

The second scenario is when people either aren’t really trying or don’t know what “trying” looks like.

A common situation that I see is a basic lack of understanding of how hard it is to get things done and the level of effort (my “appropriate” above) truly required. People often want to know the straightest path to “the answer”, not understanding there are no straight paths. You will burn up a lot of time on some paths that don’t play out, but that is unavoidable. We can use tools to limit it and improve productivity, but the iteration I talk about is staying on the problem and continuing to push even as some solution paths don’t pan out.

Generation and iteration are the keys here, along with having a personal sense of stick-to-itiveness. You need to be unwilling to settle for weak answers. I see people stop at the first obstacle or early on when there are ways over, under or around the obstacles. Merely finding some web content and pasting it into PowerPoint isn’t what I’m talking about. You have to challenge yourself to keep asking why does this matter?, what are the implications? etc. You’ll often have to go create data and analysis.

I’ll conclude with those who don’t really try and dismiss them summarily. If you aren’t committed to a problem or situation, you won’t solve it, the end. So you need to decide are you in or out and owe teammates or colleagues clarity if you’re not in.

So, how this can play out in career path?

Most people I work with say they want to be challenged and have lots of responsibility, but often want to be told what/how to do it. In my experience it rarely works that way. You need to be comfortable with charting a course if you want success in organizations. There is rarely an algorithm to spit out answers to difficult situations. People who succeed regularly solve these problems by sticking to them in creative ways. Get to the point where you are open to feedback, but in lieu of it are able to proceed confidently on a course of your own devising and sticking with it until the problem is solved.


Seeking & Accepting Feedback

November 21, 2009

One of the greatest gifts someone can offer you is honest feedback. Truly. Most of the time, people will try to varnish the truth or avoid it altogether. Since it’s so rare a gift, it’s only right to treat it as such. Often you have to go get it, as not everyone will be forthcoming if you don’t ask for it.

So ask, but not too often

Identify a set of people whose feedback you want on a regular basis. Then go get it. It’s that simple. Don’t over think it. I see a lot of people get nervous about how and when they do it, asking themselves about the appropriateness of the request. Don’t worry about it. It will be immediately obvious to you if the request is making someone uncomfortable. Then it’s up to you whether you push on through or let it go. Below are a few considerations in asking.

Be diverse in the inputs you seek. Don’t just get your boss. Get colleagues, people in other departments etc. In particular, seek out people you think might have uncomfortable feedback. If you feel threatened by people you currently work with for political or evaluative reasons, then mine old co-workers.

Be specific about what feedback you are looking for. Don’t ask for people to comment on broad open ended questions. It will make them uncomfortable (more like evaluating you as a person than commenting on your communications skills) and lead to areas that may be off point.

Example: “Is there anything I can improve on?” isn’t as helpful as, “I’ve been wondering about my communication skills, have you noticed anything in my emails or presentations you think I could improve on?” The latter is more specific and likely to yield actionable feedback.

Ask for examples. Don’t settle for generalizations. Drive for enough detail to understand, evaluate and take action.

Example: “I don’t think you present well” isn’t that helpful. Get them to say “You just read the slides and never see if your audience is following along.” That is specific enough to understand what the action plan might be.

Ask people who can actually answer. This sounds obvious, but think about the type/category of feedback you’re looking for and make sure the person you’re asking has seen enough to have a “qualified” opinion. Another thing to think about is how observant or thoughtful the people you ask are. Sometimes, non-obvious folks are very wise and can offer keen insights. Political advice is often very useful from this type of connection. So target wisely.

Example: Asking someone you haven’t worked directly with about your leadership style won’t lead to anything useful.

Don’t get overly aggressive about seeking feedback. It’s great to want feedback, but seeking too much represents either lack of confidence, understanding or disingenuousness. All bad. I’m not saying don’t be assertive in seeking out advice. I am saying don’t check in too often. Use some judgment.

Listen & don’t argue

Having asked for feedback, actually let people offer it. It is perfectly appropriate to ask thoughtful follow up questions and to play out scenarios, but don’t debate. You’ve asked for a gift, it is being given. Don’t be ungrateful. As my grandmother would say, “that’s not attractive sweetie.”

As I mentioned, asking follow up questions is part of the process. As mentioned above, if someone is too general, feel free to ask for examples. A specific example can then be fodder for re-playing the scenario to explore and learn.

For example: You receive constructive criticism on how you handled a meeting. It’s good to ask your fellow participant how they felt, suggest alternative approaches you might have taken to get their feedback and understand how participants perceived the situation. It’s NOT OK to say “I totally disagree, Sally was way off base and I don’t see how I could have handled it differently”. You just made it worse. If this is how you plan to approach feedback, better not to ask.

I bring up the graciousness part because I see the lack of it with a consistent minority of people I give feedback to. I suggest that for those of you who wrestle with accepting feedback learn to bite your tongue. If someone actually cares enough to give you feedback, they care at some level. Don’t turn them off. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t invest the time in you.

Say “thank you”

I won’t belabor this given my comments above. Suffice it to say that gratitude and graciousness are far more compelling than indifference or rudeness.

Reflect & evaluate

Take time to think about what you have heard. If you don’t reflect, the act of asking and receiving is partly wasted. It only matters if you turn inputs into insights that  drive action.

After one or several discussions, it’s time to determine your sense of what’s important. Each perspective you hear is valid, but they may not all agree or be of central importance in your development. You have to decide what strengths are worth reinforcing and what improvement opportunities merit time. You can’t rock everything, so pick and choose based on your judgment and bandwidth. Think about what you agreed with, what was new, how could I work on that etc.

I do suggest you develop a plan for key areas you are working on. It can be as simple as 3 bullet point reminders on a post it about how to kick off a meeting, or as involved as a multi-year development plan for an involved skill set. But put it in print and track yourself.

Closing thoughts

 Asking for feedback is crucial to your development. Many leadership studies cite the ability to seek out and utilize feedback as one of the most important traits great leaders possess.

 Seeking out feedback and acting on it also comes with soft benefits. It demonstrates self-awareness, maturity and a drive to improve. It also exposes you to people in ways that might not come up in the normal course of work. It also opens deeper mentoring possibilities. It’s a win/win as long as it’s done sincerely.