Book Review: Good to Great

Posted on February 28, 2010. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , |

Good to Great book coverGood to Great, by Jim Collins has been on the book shelves for a long time. It was originally published in 2001 and updated in 2005. The title was somewhat off-putting for me. I figured there is so much literature these days about “greatness” and so much lip service paid to “excellence” — much of it is meaningless. I expected Good to Great to be more of the same. But, it is not. After reading Collin’s more recent book, How the Mighty Fall, I was impressed with him as a writer and thought I’d give his other books a second glance.

What makes this book different from other popular business books is data. Collins assembled an enormous group of helpers to dig into data about great companies over a multi-year project. His group looked at 30 years of data for hundreds of US-based companies to find 11 that have gone from good to great. The bar was set very high for inclusion, companies have:

  1. operated at a level better than the market for 15 years (good performance);
  2. experienced some kind of breakthrough to become great (better return than 3x the market); and
  3. sustained that level of performance for at least 15 years.

Other companies that had come close were retained for comparison purposes only. The outcome is a very thoughtful and pragmatically meaningful body of work. The essence of the book falls back to discipline — with equal focus on getting the right people on the bus (people), handling business like a hedgehog (thinking) and making a consistent and sustained effort, regardless of who is in charge, to turn the money-making flywheel of the business (action).

Disciplined People

In good to great companies, “who always comes before what.” Collins introduces the concept of Level 5 Leadership to describe the type of leaders his study found leading the way toward greatness. He describes his personal reluctance for including the topic of leadership in the study — and it sounds much like my own reluctance to read his book! But the data was clear, those leaders who have charisma and strong will and lead through the sheer force of their personality (think Lee Iacocca) are level 4 leaders. The difference between the fourth and fifth levels of leadership, Collins finds, is the presence of humility in place of ego. Level 5 leaders routinely give credit to others, keep blame to themselves and foster growth and continuity in the people they choose to lead the company. As a result, the success of great companies extends beyond the leaders that get them there. The culture of discipline inspired by Level 5 leaders lives on after the leaders are gone.

Disciplined Thinking

The hedgehog, as Collins explains, does pretty much one thing only; but it does it very, very well. A hedgehog is not very glamorous, when danger comes along it balls up, sticks out its sharp spines and stays put until the danger goes away. As a result, the hedgehog may not be very elegant, but it always survives. Hedgehog thinking happens at the confluence of three concepts: an economically viable idea, the ability to be the best in the world at something and a passionate drive for the work. Where all three of these things exist, the organization is using hedgehog or disciplined thinking

Collins explores the role of technology in success. He finds technology on its own neither creates success nor failure. Rather, technology acts as an accelerator. He found great companies use technology, but only to augment their hedgehog approach. Conversely, he found companies who failed to adopt technology were doomed to fail despite their technophobic ways. Disciplined thinking with respect to technology requires a crawl, then walk, then run attitude. Apply technology as it is useful and then master it before increasing its presence in your business.

Disciplined Action

When it comes to action, there is power in focus. The core concept of a business is its flywheel. The flywheel is the idea behind the organization that makes its business concept work. Just like the weight of a mechanical flywheel generates momentum as it spins, the spinning of the business’ flywheel has a multiplying effect on success. Collins found strong evidence that good to great companies figure out their core concept and then do everything to keep it turning at a steadily increasing pace. It may take years, but with consistent and dedicated effort at turning the flywheel, eventually enough momentum gathers that a breakthrough takes place.

This build up / break through concept focuses on preserving the core (organization values) and stimulating progress (business model.) The research found something I have LONG believed… when everyone focuses on turning the flywheel there is NO NEED for alignment exercises, motivational speeches and change management because everyone already knows what to do. Convincingly, Collins points to abundant data that show large pay packages — rather than causing improved performance — make no difference and may even be harmful for success of a company. The rock star CEO is a myth and the grossly inflated pay packages that go along with this type of elitism is simply a waste of organizational resources.

Summary

Good to Great gets two thumbs up from me. And, now that I’ve read two of his books, I’m anxious to read Built to Last. Although this was the first book in the series, he recommends reading Good to Great first. Supposedly, there is another book in the works too. I look forward to more of Collins’ data-driven, insightful approach to good business.

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Time Management 2.1

Posted on February 12, 2010. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , |

Borrowing from the popular Web 2.0 theme, I’ve been considering what would the next generation of time management look like… since a lot of really smart people have already been working on this topic for a while, I decided my work is nothing special so it doesn’t deserve a 3.0 label, but I think I have an interesting twist on a very popular subject, hence TM2.1.

Consider all the tools — paper-based, client-based and web-based — available for free or purchase. The options are overwhelming and it is not my intention here to create an inventory. If I did, it would soon be out-of-date… probably before I hit the “Publish” button on my blog!

And this is the inspiration for my newest quest in time management… what would time management look like if it were tool agnostic?

Time Management Without Brand Names

My time management practices tend to become driven by the capabilities of the system I’m using. When I used Outlook, I filed all messages in a single folder because that was all that was possible. When I switched to Gmail I quickly learned the value of using categories instead of folders because now I didn’t have to decide which folder to use, I could use whatever categories fit. Even then, after years of using Gmail, I rely much less on structured organization and mostly use the search  feature to find what I’m seeking.

Herein lies the problem, when I align my practices with the features of a product I become beholden to the product and not the underlying task requirement. This started me thinking about the basic building blocks of my time management system. The challenge here will be to think about each part without using the Microsoft, Google or GTD names! Instead, I intend to describe the specific task in generic language.

Correspondence

When I started my career in 1980, email didn’t exist. All correspondence happened in paper form or by telephone. Instant messaging wasn’t even a dream. It was customary to plan 3 days for one’s correspondence to get to its destination. If something was really important, courier services existed for overnight delivery, but they charged a high premium for the privilege.

With email, instant messaging, chat, texting and social network sites we now have many ways to keep in touch, communicate and reach out. Plus, the old standby of postal mail is still in the picture. I’ve not seen an interoffice memorandum for some time, but I’m sure some businesses and public organizations still correspond in this format.

Tasks

In my world, correspondence usually leads to tasks. A meeting with a colleague, an email from a student, and IM from my child — these usually generate something for me to do. I wonder sometimes if, what we refer to as time-management wouldn’t more accurately be called task-management.

Scheduling

For me, scheduling is really tasks with priorities applied. While many of us play with the idea of multi-tasking, such divided attention practices rarely produce useful, meaningful outcomes. They are better suited for monitoring or maintaining what is happening around us. When we need to devote our attention to getting something done, we must focus our attention. This typically involves setting a priority and putting it in our schedule.

People

None of us is an island, we all rely on others for even the most mundane of activities — try starting your day without using products and services provided by someone else! Whether the person is a loved-one, a friend, an acquaintance or a service provider, I am often challenged with keeping track of them all. Throw in account numbers, usernames and password codes — all of which allow us to interact with other people or the services they offer — and this becomes a significant element for time management.

Reference Locators

This group is particulary hard for me to describe without using a common technology label, bookmarks. Its purpose however — and what distinguishes it from the next group — is its reference to accessing information that is routinely needed. In the year of 2010, we are stuck in a transition from reference information stored in a physical place to storage in a virtual place. The result is, we must have duplicate, parallel systems that work well together. To complicate things further, items stored in physical space are of a variety of dimensions. While a file cabinet and storage locker may work for most items, there is invariably something that fits in neither. There is a parallel problem in the virtual world — bookmarks, pictures, email, documents, etc require slightly different treatment.

Archives

This the miscellaneous category. Pretty much everything I’ve ever dealt with has one. Those nasty exceptions that just don’t fit anywhere else. The typical characteristic here is they are important — otherwise you would have thrown it away — and the time horizon of need is undetermined — otherwise, you would put them into your schedule. The primary challenge with archives is remembering you have them and being able to find what you need when you need it.

A Roadmap for Future Work

This topic has been on my mind (and a task list) for months, ever since I struggled with adapting the outdated electronic systems used by the State of Oregon to my personal time management system. I still remember a conversation with my carpool partner Steve about the topic. I was frustrated and threw my hands into the air — I feel like I’m being forced back to a paper system, but I still remember all the problems with paper! I initially wrote this blog article on 20-AUG-2010, but couldn’t finish it.

Subsequently, I struggled with the difficulties of having multiple locations from which I needed to access information. The age-old problem of not being in the same place as my address book when I needed to make a phone call, and related problems.

In more recent days, I am worried about my reliance on any one product or service. I enjoy when my time management system works for me and stays in the background. I become discouraged when a provider changes a feature I rely on or a technology change out dates an application that is the cornerstone of my electronic system.

Having a roadmap that lays out the basic blocks of my time management system and its requirements is a useful tool for future migrations and tool modifications. We all know they are coming, it’s only a matter of time! I’ll use my professional blog as a forum for working through these issues and options and I invite questions and opinions along the way…

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Google Conundrum

Posted on January 20, 2010. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , |

Computers and technology seem inherently disappointing. Isn’t it amazing all of the things we can do today that nobody even imagined 10 years ago… Facebook, Twitter, phone apps, mobility, cloud computing, blogging, etc.

The problem is, when I find an application that does something I want — like Outlook does a nice job organizing a calendar and has a super powerful task function — there are trade-offs, Outlook is confined to a single PC. As computer hardware becomes more ubiquitous, being confined to a single work station, even if it is a laptop or a smart phone, seems silly and limiting.

From Outlook to Google

So, I moved on to Google. The Gmail email interface is more flexible than Outlook and replacing folders with tags was ingenious… and liberating. With tags and Google’s famous search capabilities, filing and retrieving messages is no longer a chore. Plus, I no longer I have to limit myself to a single piece of hardware. I can access messages anywhere I have an internet connection. Plus, the calendar function has evolved to be even better than Outlook (it didn’t start there!) Google is working on an improved “task” functionality, but it too is painfully so slow in coming.

Next Comes Mobility

Once freed from a single work station, my mind begins to worry about accessing information when I’m not connected to a network. Sure, I could pay my Verizon cancellation fee, spend an exorbitant sum on an iPhone and throw the thousands of dollars I’ve spent on PC-compatibility out the window so I could switch to Apple’s dark side, which also brings other complications. Too bad money doesn’t grow on trees. Plus, AT&T cellular coverage sucks in the small community where I live. And, all cellular coverage has holes. So, expecting to always have a network connection is such 2025 thinking.

Enter an iPod Touch. The benefits are great — in addition to getting a portable, flexible organizer that works even when the network is unavailable or inconvenient to use, iTunes allows synchronization with Outlook; Outlook will sync with Google and the whole system “hangs together.” The Touch does not require an expensive phone plan and it can sync with this time management universe through a small USB cable.

Onto Convenience

With computer memory so cheap and so many useful applications available, 64-bit technology is the next logical step. With old style 32-bit processors, computers are limited to 4GB of memory. That worked when there wasn’t much to run on your PC, but things have changed. The 64-bit processor allows virtually unlimited memory but also requires more modern operating systems and sophisticated software programs. Windows 7 promises many improvements over Windows XP (I never did make the step into Vista) and I dutifully updated all of my equipment to run Microsoft’s latest and greatest operating system this month.

Now the Google Conundrum

Even though 64-bit technology has been around for years, Google hasn’t discovered it yet. While their Calendar Sync application does a wonderful job of keeping my iPod synchronized with Google calendar via Outlook and iTunes, it doesn’t work in a 64-bit environment. Windows 7 offers this cool gimmick called “compatibility mode” which allows a user to run applications as if they were in a previous operating environment. I say “gimmick” because it doesn’t work. Much like the play ground toys at my local grade school, there are lots of knobs to tweak and levers to pull, but nothing happens outside of your imagination.

And, I’m on my own. Nobody seems to have this same problem and Google has no plans to support 64-bit operating systems. Microsoft has no incentive to put its client-based application online in a meaningful way for an individual user. Apple is stuck in their arrogance of wanting to control all elements of their tiny virtual ecosystem. All those mobile app builders are busying themselves with more important functionality for the masses like Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars or iMario Lite.

Once again, my fantasies drift back to simpler days of paper-based Franklin Day Planners…

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The Message dictates the Media

Posted on April 5, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , , , |

marshallmcluhanIn his 1964 book Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan published the statement that defined his legacy, “The medium is the message.” In today’s connected, Internet world this statement is more true than ever. However, based upon my experience, I think of McLuhan’s statement differently, “The message dictates the medium.”

For seven years I led a project at Hewlett-Packard called VidNet, an internal webcasting and streaming video service – kind of like YouTube before it was available. VidNet ran entirely on HP’s internal network and was designed to maximize knowledge transfer inside of HP’s far-glung corporate environment without burdening the network with a glut of video traffic.

Through VidNet I learned about applying technology to communication. In August 2008 I presented my insights at the International Quality and Productivity Center’s Conference on Distance Learning in Sao Paulo, Brasil. The presentation was titled Matching Media to Message: When and When Not to Use Distance Learning. This article follows the outline of that presentation.

2.5 = 1?

During the final two decades of the 20th century, HP was growing quickly, especially in the inkjet printing world… and, Corvallis was at the center of this world. Thermal Inkjet (also known as TIJ) printing was invented in Corvallis by a quirky group of renegades back in the day before renegades were considered bad. The business grew from nothing in the early 1980s to a multi-billion dollar, global industry and HP was in the lead. At one time the HP-Corvallis site had more than 7000 employees and most of them were working on TIJ related business. There were almost 20,000 TIJ-related employees around the world in far off places like Ireland, Singapore, Puerto Rico, Spain, Israel and San Diego.

The demands of growing a technical workforce to support this business were many and the first step in any TIJ engineer’s job at HP was through the TIJ Knowledge Modules. These were a set of 8 classes teaching the fundamentals related TIJ development and manufacturing. Each module had a set of experts and all were “volunteers” who taught the class in their spare time. In 1997 I became responsible for the TIJ Knowledge Modules and a group of about 30 instructors in Corvallis as well as the global program in the various remote sites. Although we tried educating instructors from remote sites in Corvallis and sending them back to teach locally, most engineers still wanted to come to Corvallis to hear first-hand from the experts who had created the technology. Because we were teaching the 8 modules twice per month (total of 16 classes per month or as many as 450 students), the cost of delivery was a very noticeable expense. In addition, the volunteer instructors had full-time jobs and they were already at full capacity. We had to come up with a more cost effective means of delivery that would leverage the limited amount of time of the experts.

Our answer was to create VidNet with an assignment to convert the TIJ Knowledge Modules into streaming video. Fortunately, we had an existing video studio in Corvallis and were able to bring all of the best instructors together to accomplish the capture easily and quickly. Before starting, we collected all of the commonly asked questions in class – our goal was to cover all of the material presented in the classroom, only have it available on demand from the intranet.

The effort went well. But curiously, when we all was said-and-done, the run time for each module went from the standard classroom time of 2.5 hours to 1 hour in the studio. Although we had used the most seasoned instructors,  the exact same slides and made sure s/he responded to all of the most likely asked questions, we had reduced the run time by 60%… The only difference in the presentation was the studio recordings lacked a live audience and the interaction that typically comes from having people in the room was missing. But still, where’d the 1.5 hours go? After all, we were answering the same questions. Was this an improvement in efficiency or a loss of content?

Technology Abounds

When McLuhan published his book, it appeared at a time when mass marketing options were burgeoning. Network television was taking hold and the American (and global) community was beginning to fall into large patterns driven by broadcast schedules. But McLuhan could have no idea what would happen when the internet, mobile technology, cloud computing and content mash-ups would be available to anyone with a PC and an internet connection.

technologyladder2The diagram at right illustrates a few of the common technologies available today for communication. Obviously, I use the term technology very loosely as most people wouldn’t think of meeting in person with someone else as a technology. But for purposes of considering the options available today for communication, I chosen to do so.

I’ve listed technologies I consider to be high bandwidth on top and then ranked them in descending order based upon a variety of factors, mostly by their speed and the ability and ease for interaction. So, think of voice mail or email as being asynchronous – or happening when the sender and receiver are not together at the same time – and non-interactive. On the other hand, although the HP Halo Conference Room is a remote technology but due to the high quality of the synchronous connection (lots of bandwidth) and the opportunity for interaction that bandwidth affords, it is ranked higher on the ladder. Still, nothing beats the same technology our ancestors used… sitting around the campfire telling stories or interacting face-to-face, one-with-one. By the way, Cisco and others have competing technologies in this new field called immerse experiences or Telepresence and recent stories suggest this technology could save industry billions of dollars per year in reduced travel expense and improved collaboration in the foreseeable future.

Understanding Your Message

To understand what happened with that missing 1.5 hours in the VidNet example, it’s useful to have a more concrete way of thinking about communication. Fortunately, a friend and mentor of mine, John Eggert of The Idea Leadership Company has done a lot of thinking on this topic. I attribute much of what I write in this section to his work. During my presentation I chose to look at three dimensions and four elements of a message.

Three dimensions of a Message

The diagram at left shows a cube with three separate poles or dimensions — Narrow vs. Broad, Simple vs. Complex and Precise vs. Ambiguous. These dimensions help us to categorize a message so we can understand exactly what we are trying to accomplish.

When a message is narrow it is directed to a well defined group of people with specific, identifiable needs or interests. For example, when the fire alarm in your building goes off, all people in that area are alerted immediately to proceed calmly and quickly to the nearest exit. On the other hand, broad messages are directed to a group of people with many different or indistinguishable needs or interests. For example, when I teach project management, the concepts of project definition, scope, schedule, resources and work breakdown structure are widely applicable to a very large number of projects and people in different roles. If I want to teach a group of project managers, I won’t get much more than an empty room when I trip the fire alarm!

Simple concepts, on the other hand, derive from a logical set of steps. For example, when communicating the appropriate torque settings for a manufactured fastener to a trained mechanic, the settings are straight forward and the message is simple. If however, I am instructing executives how to establish a strategic plan for their business unit, there are clear steps but there are many inter-relationships and it is a complex process.

Finally, when dealing with precise information I am working with concepts that are concrete, well established and well known such as calculating the total interest on a mortgage loan. By contrast, when the concepts are much less clear and are subject to multiple interpretations, they are ambiguous. Precise ideas are easy to reject while ambiguous ideas allow lots of flexibility.

It is important to note in all three dimensions, these descriptions are intended to be descriptive, not evaluative. In other words, simple is not better than complex, it is just different. Simple messages may be easier to communicate but circumstances often dictate a more complex approach. Also, it is easy to confuse the two terms of complex and ambiguous, but they are different ideas. Think of it this way, complex describes the number of inter-relationships among the elements of the message while ambiguous defines the presence or absence of clear connections between the elements.

Four Elements

Because different situations call for different approaches, message requirements shift given a variety of factors. By evaluating the elements of a message, you are considering the audience, resistance to your message, the action you desire your listeners to take and the amount of money or time you have for accomplishing your objective. Here are four elements I find useful to consider, you may have more (or less) depending upon your specific circumstances.

  1. Audience – Will this be a large or small group? Will they be in the same place or even the same time zone? Are they technical or non-technical? Are they experienced or beginners? Generalists or specialists? Is this group homogeneous or multi-cultural? What about their organizational affiliations… executive vs. managerial vs. professional, etc; operating vs. staff; employees vs. contractors vs. business partners?
  2. Resistance – What are the consequences of non-compliance? Will it be simply an inconvenience, will the organization lose revenue or might there be regulatory implications? What kind of change management issues will arise? Are you contradicting legacy practices, will there be winners and losers when you are done, will priorities have to change?
  3. Action – What will you expect the recipients to do with the information? Are you trying to create focus, raise awareness or generate action? Do you want that action immediately, on a recurring basis, over a long period of time? Does this information have archive value – in other words, is this news that will grow stale in a day or two or is it research that will be fundamental to the understanding of your business? What specific outcomes do you hope to achieve? How will you know you were successful?
  4. Budget – What will your budget afford? In the fundamentals of project management we know the saying, “scope, schedule or resources – pick any two.” Can your schedule or scope be adjusted to accommodate your available resources? Does the budget come from a fixed source or is it variable – in other words, can you charge per use or are the terms pre-defined?

Human Bandwidth

peghole1

In today’s Internet-enabled world, many people are familiar with the term bandwidth, especially when they don’t have enough of it. Remember the days when 56kbps was fast? (This is the top limit for most dial-up connections and was considered fast in the 1990s.) Then came DSL and cable and we started talking in megabits per second (mbps) rather than kilobits per second (kbps). If you’ve ever tried to return to a dial-up connection after using a 15mbps cable connection, it is painful.

Using the wrong media for your message is like trying to put a square peg into a round hole… it just doesn’t fit. If your message is complex, ambiguous and narrow, but you’ve chosen a low bandwidth medium like an email or even a phone call, often the result is disastrous. Have you heard about the man who was fired with a fax from his boss? Most of us have heard this or a similar horror story. The primary intention behind this article is to avoid this type of disastrous mismatch of message to media.

Putting It All Together

The following are some simple rules that I use when selecting an appropriate medium for my message. Bear in mind, these are guidelines only and often it takes a lot of time to know when you are ready to proceed. Do yourself a favor and take the time to understand. As my friend taught me, sometimes slow is fast. That means, taking a few minutes or even a few days up front may save you months or even years down the road.
  1. Always match the message to the media. In fact, use your understanding of the message to drive your choice of media.
  2. Words are not the only content of face-to-face communication. More communication happens face-to-face than the mere words that are exchanged. If the non-verbal (such as trust or importance) portion of your exchange is important to your message, use a face-to-face option.
  3. Distance Learning technology will save you money or time only IF it fits with your message. If it doesn’t fit, your choices could cost you dearly in both.
  4. When evaluating your message focus on a single person/audience at a time. If your audience is diverse, it may help you to think about them as separate groups. If those groups are still very large, identify or make-up a single person to represent that group and tailor your message to him or her. This will add some complexity to your process but it may be the difference in a well suited medium.
  5. There is no exact formula.

While I have been exploring these concepts for some time, I do not consider this topic a closed issue. Research would be useful in understanding the various components in non-verbal communication to have a more clearly defined set of operating rules. I believe the use of technology – because of its inherent narrow bandwidth – could be instrumental in isolating these components. Such understanding would be valuable in helping organizations choose wisely amongst the explosion of remote and asynchronous options available in distance learning and human interaction.

If you have thoughts on this topic, I encourage you to leave a comment here or send me a message.

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