Let It Go: Don’t let Anger or Frustration Derail You

July 12, 2009

In the last month I’ve chatted with a few folks who were grumpy or bitter about some situation in their work life.  I find myself giving the same advice over and over. “Let it go.”

My kids have a great book Zen Shorts, about Stillwater the panda bear and his three new friends Michael, Addy and Karl. Stillwater shares a story with each child based on a typical issue they are dealing with. For Karl, it’s anger at his older brother Michael over various slights and bossings around.

Stillwater relates the story of an elder and younger monks’ journey in China. At one point the older monk stops to help a wealthy lady across the street. She is haughty and ungrateful for the help. Hours of brooding later, the younger monk says to the elder, “That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn’t even thank you!”

The elder monk’s reply? “I set her down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

Hanging on to anger isn’t effective in the long term. It may motivate you in the short term, but probably not to a useful outcome. It also diverts attention from your own journey.

I’m not saying don’t be frustrated or get upset. These are normal human emotions. You need to learn to control them and help them empower you.

Why are you angry?

First, think about what is making you angry. Is it a personal slight, unjust treatment of others, poor performance of a work group or individual? Context matters.

How do I deal with it?

Did someone hurt your feelings or embarrass you? DON’T respond in anger.  Most of the time, the clever retort or blunt email will come back to haunt you. Try to develop a thicker skin. You need to learn to control how you reveal your emotions. Manage them or they’ll manage you.

1 – Vent. As a venting mechanism (because we need help letting it go), I try to do two things. One, have a good friend you can let it rip with to get it off your chest. I’ve peeled wallpaper off the walls of conference rooms sharing frustrations with some of my close colleagues. Then I try to put it in a box and tuck it away. Catharsis is good if it moves you forward.

Another strategy is making sure you’re exercising and in decent health. My ability to regulate my mood and patience is greatly improved when I’m exercising.  A long run or time on the elliptical runner help me think clearly and let the endorphins go.

2 – Do something about it. Frustrated because something is unjust or a work situation is bad? Work to make it better, rather than simply ranting and becoming a crank.  Nobody likes the “angry” person. Be useful and channel your frustrations into action.

I am also not saying “turn the other cheek” or ignore people if they are trying to attack you. But responding angrily will go badly. Respond coolly and be disciplined in how you manage the situation. In Godfather terms, be Michael, not Sonny. He dies shot up in a toll booth because he was a hot head.

I’ve heard it called “personal mastery”. Whatever you call it, get it.

As the buddha said:

“You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”


Problem Solving 101

June 16, 2009

Much of my teaching is focused on how to effectively define a problem, how to go about solving it using discipline and various techniques and then how to frame to recommendations so that others will take action. I have written on this in the past as well.

Too many books I see on the problem solving side take an overly complicated approach, particularly for readers trying to go from “not so good” to “pretty good/good”. The typical tome is much more of an expert practitioners guide and makes things more complicated than they need to be.

I really appreciate Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People because it doesn’t fall into this trap. It takes a light-hearted and practical approach to demonstrating a simple but powerful set of basic tools.

Ken Watanabe worked for McKinsey, a leading strategy consulting firm. He distills the basic components of theirs (and everyone else’s) basic problem solving structure into problem definition, analysis structure and solution definition. He does this using a few simple (but not simple-minded) examples that were originally developed for 6th graders. It’s a very quick read (digestible in a short plane flight) , useful and worth a read whatever level of skill you believe yourself to be.


What should I read?

April 19, 2009

I get asked for a lot of reading advice from students and friends, so I’ve decided to add a permanent page to the site. It  lists what I think are classics that stand the test of time and that I have found influential in my thinking or development. The list will continue to grow over time.

This list will remain short, however there’s a longer list of ideas you need to understand. You just don’t have to read the whole book to get the idea. There are sooo many business books that are essentially articles with a lot of anecdotes added that I tend to avoid business books. Read the HBR article or the Fortune Magazine exerpt and you’ll get the idea.  

Stay current to stay relevant, just avoid wasting your time. You can subscribe to podcasts like Harvard Ideacast (on their site or through iTunes) that often summarize recent articles or get brief synopses of books from getAbstract.


Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

March 25, 2009

When I was growing up, my best friend Pete’s dad always told us we needed to “work, work, work”. It’s such a family joke, that when one of Pete’s kids was born his mother in law joked whether the baby needed to get right to “work, work, work.”

 

I was reminded of this and a few other things in reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. If you are at all interested in history, cultural influence on macro patterns of development, education and economic development then I highly recommend Outliers.

 

Gladwell sets out to understand what explains “outliers”, which he defines as individual success stories that lie well outside the norm and cannot be explained by normal circumstances. The conventional approach to explaining these successes is a Horatio Alger-esque emphasis on the rugged individual’s personal capabilities and persistence. Gladwell asks us to pause and consider whether this is really what’s going on in most cases.

 

His answer is fascinating and points to several critical factors that tend to tilt the field in certain groups and people’s favor. The point is not a deterministic rendering of “it is what it is”, but rather taking the deeper findings and applying them to creative solutions that lead to enhanced opportunity for everyone.

 

Two major factors that he describes influencing outcomes are opportunity and hard work. The latter is heavily affected by one’s cultural situation. These seem obvious, but there are patterns to certain groups’ successes that are alternately discouraging and hopeful.

 

“Opportunity” is very subtle…

 

Bill Gates is a classic example of entrepreneurial zeal. But how did a such a young man go so far so fast? It turns he was probably one of only a handful of teenagers in the US who had access to nearly unlimited computing time as was his friend Paul Allen. Both their school and the University of Washington offered almost unique access. Personal computing was on the verge of taking off. They were uniquely placed to see and exploit a new technology. There literally were not many people who could have been Bill Gates. Most didn’t know enough about programming.

 

Gladwell demonstrates that an unusually large number of computer innovators were born within 2-3 years of each other (Gates, Allen, Jobs, Ellison, Joy, McNealy etc.) They were born in a Goldilocks moment if you will. Old giants don’t see opportunity while a whole new ecosystem is emerging. A similar explosion of large scale entrepreneurship happened in the 19th century with railroads, steel and other infrastructure. A similarly tight range of birthdays bounds that generation’s giants.

 

Certainly others had similar opportunities and didn’t become Bill Gates. But the number of people who did is in the hundreds or thousands, not the millions. Very few people had the confluence of influences and market opportunities that these entrepreneurs did.

 

Hard work matters, but not all hard work is the same…

 

Gladwell convincingly (in my opinion) shows that “genius” is over-rated relative to work and softer emotional intelligence characteristics. Many studies show there is a magical threshold of ~10,000 hours of effort that tends to define “mastery” of a discipline. Additionally, certain factors bear a heavy influence on one’s ability to get to these levels of mastery.

 

A major factor is culture. Each of us is rooted in a particular culture that carries tendencies to views on a wide array of subjects. Gladwell focuses on views towards work effort and type of work.

 

First, how consistently and hard are you inclined to work? There’s a “stick-to-it-ivness” required to get really good at things. Studies he cites point out that in music, art, math and most disciplines there is no clear correlation between natural genius and success. Instead people who really grind to get better do.  Those who don’t, don’t. Read the book for details.

 

Second, what kind of work are you doing? Working really hard at menial labor won’t get you ahead. He explores the difference between Irish or Italian immigrants and Eastern European Jews in late 19th century New York. One group brought experience in skilled labor (clothing/sewing/knitting) and turned that into an explosion of entrepreneurialism in the garment district. Were they “smarter” or harder workers than other groups? Probably not, but they were urban/city dwellers in their home countries and brought commercially viable skills with them. Their hard work allowed them to get ahead because of the skills they brought with them from Europe (an intersection of opportunity & hard work).

 

Third, where you’re from matters. Different agricultural traditions lead to different views of effort and focus. Rice farming requires incredibly precise work year round from the entire family unit and if you are more diligent and more precise than your neighbor you will most likely have higher yields. Wheat farming is much more seasonal and outcomes are driven by natural factors beyond a farmer’s control. There are implications for the attitudes towards success and hard work that develop and they persist long after leaving the field or even the native country.

 

So what?

Gladwell offers a number of interesting implications, in particular for education. Read to find out the results KIPP schools get from applying this continuous effort based view to changing the school calendar and curriculum. Hint: It’s pretty impressive or he wouldn’t be citing it.

 

Part of why I liked the conclusions he reached is that it meshes with my views on hard work and creativity. A major determinant of long term success in my mind is effort. Continuous creative effort generally overcomes a lot of obstacles.

 

 

It also speaks to the need to stick with things longer than many modern students want to. Everyone wants to rotate through jobs quickly to “learn faster”. It’s important to remember that you have to actually do something for awhile to really learn it. There is a distinct difference for me in offering consulting advice to businesses after I had to run my own. I have a much better understanding of what I know (and don’t know). So stick with things long enough to actually learn some deeper lessons.


Orbiting the Giant Hairball

March 4, 2009

 

Ever wonder how you survive to innovate in a larger company? Gordon MacKenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball; A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace is a fun and useful read. MacKenzie worked for Hallmark for 30 years and has compiled a sometimes whimsical, sometimes profound summary of his experience a learnings.

 

The “Hairball” is any organization that has put in place departments, rules, processes and standard operating procedures to systematize its existence. “Orbiting” is the art of staying relevant and attached to said hairball without flying off into space (or irrelevance). He calls it “responsible creativity”. Orbiting creates all sorts of desirable outcomes because it allows an individual to use the resources of the hairball while not being completely tied to the routinized and standardized processes inherent in it.

 

The book is produced creatively, with drawings, poems and art used throughout. It’s also a quick read.

 

A few of his key points that lined up with my way of thinking:

1.      If you truly can’t stand the hairball, leave it. Note he remained at Hallmark 30 years despite fighting aspects of the company’s culture for years.

2.      Be proactive. I call it “don’t be a victim”. If things aren’t working, what are you doing to try and change them?

3.      Responsible creativity means risking being wrong, but ultimately being aligned with the organizations broader goals. For him, you had to working towards making money selling greeting cards. The battles were around HOW, not WHETHER to do this.

4.      He had great metaphors and stories about corporate life that offer wit and wisdom on coping and overcoming absurdity.

5.      Figure out what matters to you. It won’t be clear at the beginning, but keep asking and challenging yourself.

 

“If you go to your grave

without painting

your masterpiece,

it will not

get painted.

No one else

Can paint it.

 

Only you.”


Driving to Yes or No; How to Reach More Rationale Business Investment Decisions

February 23, 2009

Business investment decisions and strategy choices get so complicated. At least we like to make them that way. It justifies the large salaries and tremendous amount of time that goes into PowerPoint slides and Excel models. I’m not really that cynical, but when you’ve sat through as many PowerPoint death marches that end with a recommendation to invest and you’re not sure what you’re investing in, you get a little jaded.

 

In my prior life working on corporate and business unit level strategy at 3M several of us got turned on to the work of Rita Gunther McGrath as well as some excellent work from the Corporate Strategy Board in this area, primarily a 2003-4 report entitled “Strategic Assumptions Prioritization” that focused on Air Products corporation. McGrath is well known for her work on entrepreneurialism and growth. Her 1995 Harvard Business Review article “Discovery Driven Planning” proposed a useful (to those of us who bought in) and compelling model for how to think about prioritizing and shepherding a portfolio of growth opportunities to kill/launch decisions.

 

Often, internal capital allocation decisions and “bake-offs” between ideas can lead to PowerPoint template hell. Lots of disconnected slide or excel workbook templates that only apply to certain opportunities, not to others and the resulting desultory compliance in generating useless “analysis”. We asked ourselves: “how do I make the process genuinely useful and also more ‘fair’ as we looked at unlike opportunities (i.e.: a product vs. a service)?”

 

Based on our research and own internal needs, we devised a process based on several key steps. The first was defining a “reverse P&L/income statement”, the second was documenting the most important assumptions that drove economic success in the reverse income statement and third was conducting research to better understand the accuracy of the key assumptions and refining them as you better understood them. McGrath’s article in HBR nicely describes this and I’ll summarize in a minute.

 

The major shift for the business I was in was institutionalizing this at a business unit level and better preparing executives to challenge teams’ assumptions and also be more equipped to evaluate unlike opportunities fairly in a common process.

 

I’ll summarize the challenges, basic principles and then offer a quick summary of my experience with this at both a business unit strategy level as well as

 

Challenges and rationale

1.      Most business evaluations are set to get you to an ROI or NPV type assessment early on. For truly innovative programs, this is almost impossible. You don’t know what you don’t know. The result is that better understood opportunities (i.e.: “easier” ones) always float to the top.  Air Products (the subject of the CSB report) developed a new method for evaluating these more challenging opportunities.

2.      Many losing propositions get launched and fail for what I think of as “knowable unknowns”. You could have found out cheaply if you had really tried.

3.      Knowing what to focus on can be hard. Everything seems important at first.

 

Principles

1.      Define success as specifically as you can up front. This can mean revenue, profit margin, market share etc. Make it tangible.

2.      Write down all the significant assumptions and then rank their importance and “known-ness” (i.e.: certainty vs. uncertainty) to achieve a loose prioritization.

3.      Build a plan and timeline around the most important assumptions.

4.      Focus research and efforts on cheaply and effectively validating and invalidating these assumptions.

5.      Be creative in finding “proxies” for your assumptions.

6.      Pilot/test ideas quickly to learn about assumptions that can’t simply be “researched”, but do it efficiently.

7.      Never, never, never forget that a good plan with a bad team won’t succeed. Planning is no substitute for talent.

 

Benefits

1.      It much more clearly surfaces the key assumptions for everyone involved. Some programs get killed almost immediately once you agree on a key assumption and it doesn’t pass the “laugh test”. Other “far out” ideas become reasonable when you see the assumptions and say “we could do that!”

2.      This process is good at allowing flexibility across opportunities. Assumptions can be very different and get you to “apples to apples” comparisons.

3.      It forces you to more clearly articulate a “thesis” for the opportunity.

4.      It clearly aligns with gate-based decision processes. If you think generically in three phases (idea, pilot and launch) this gets you through them. An initial list of assumptions w/ a reverse P&L for $100 million may need a brief discussion to get $50K in seed funding to increase confidence that yields $1 million in pilot funding and the pilot will give you clarity on the potential $15 million investment required to scale. The process should be systematically reducing doubt as you move through the process.

 

My next post will be on my experience both at the BU strategy level and as an internal entrepreneur going through the process with a growth venture.


Edward Tufte and the Visual Display of Information

February 19, 2009

For those of you interested in deeper exploration of how to more effectively display ideas, particularly relating to data, I highly recommend the work of Edward Tufte. Tufte is an award winning author and emeritus professor at Yale where he taught courses on data analysis and display. His books and teaching are challenging and force you to move beyond powerpoint and overly simplified forms of information display.

I often teach principles of simplicity in message and communication. Tufte is very effective at pointing out and teaching how to make “simple” powerful without being “simplistic”. There are very data rich and complex ways to show information that are also intuitive and easy to understand. His writings are rich with examples and are beautifully built. The books themselves are works of art.

His site has multiple commentary threads that are worth reading. In addition, I recommend checking out his essay on the tyranny of powerpoint.