Putting It On Goal

A good friend of mine and co-founder of  CaptainU sent a video along this morning that reminded me of a concept I learned from playing certain sports – most notably soccer and (during a few years in Tulsa) roller hockey.

In those sports, where both sides are shooting at a goal and much of your success is governed by the positioning of players and the angles of the field/rink, you’ll often hear team members encouraging each other to put the ball or the puck “on goal.” Putting it on goal is basically taking a shot at the goal where, if it was unblocked, it would go in, even if there are visible obstructions (like the goalie).

The reason you want to put it on goal a lot is that you really don’t know what will happen. The puck might ricochet, the ball might take a weird bounce, and the goalie might just miss it. The goalie might go to the ground to block your shot and a teammate might get an open look on the rebound. The more attempts you make, the more chances you have that something will break in your favor. But if you dribble the ball or control the puck around the perimeter and never take a shot (because you’re waiting for the perfect look), you have no chance.

As the video shows below, even the most ridiculous attempts lead to success sometimes. But you’ll only know one way or another if you try. And try again. And try again.


Talking, Walking, Thinking

Terrence HowardI love the movie Hustle and Flow. It’s definitely R-rated, and therefore not for everyone, but it’s all about overcoming your circumstances to grab at something better. And of course it’s about music.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when the ambitious young pimp-wanna-be-rapper D-Jay (played excellently by Terrence Howard) is trying to persuade his old high school friend Key (who is by comparison highly respectable, played by Anthony Anderson) to help him cut a hiphop record. Key’s response:

There are two types of people: those that talk the talk and those that walk the walk. People who walk the walk sometimes talk the talk but most times they don’t talk at all, ’cause they walkin’. Now, people who talk the talk, when it comes time for them to walk the walk, you know what they do? They talk people like me into walkin’ for them.

The movie from then on out hinges on D-Jay’s ability to talk and Key’s ability to walk, and I won’t ruin how it ends up – but I recommend this movie if you haven’t seen it.

The reason this quote resonates with me is because I think it’s a lens through which you can look at your own life. Yes, I’m probably the only guy that watches Hustle and Flow and gets introspective, but bear with me.

How much of you is talk? How much of you is walk? I like to throw in a third category -“thinking” – because it’s something I personally love to do and it can sometimes keep me from walking or talking.

I think part of being good professionally (and probably personally) is balancing those activities. We’ve all met people who are “all talk” with little thought or follow-through, we’ve met the impestuous people who are “all action” seemingly without thought or communication, and we’ve met the “analysis paralysis” people who think all the time but don’t seem to say or do much. The key, in my mind, is not to try not to fall into one of those categories – being thought, communication, and action in equal or appropriate parts.

So if you don’t hear from me on this blog, talking it up, I’m probably too busy walkin’ (or thinking up my next post). Because as the theme song from Hustle and Flow says, it’s hard out there for a pimp.

Killing the BCC

Luke, I can sense that you want to blind copy someoneIn my work experience I’ve been in all different spots in companies – I’ve worked in sales, marketing, customer service, and engineering – managed others for five years and been managed for eight. All of that to say that I have been in a lot of interesting and challenging positions with people I reported to, peers, and people who reported to me.

During that time I have run across many coworkers who I admire because they communicate in a candid, genuine way and are as transparent as possible with others. I think this is something we all try to do – but no one is perfect and sticking to it isn’t always easy. There are always temptations to go over to the “dark side,” to find yourself unwittingly sucked into a political battle or accidentally complicit in working around or over others.

Of course, I’m not talking about doing things that are clearly unethical here, like lying or concealing things deliberately for your own gain – that’s the very dark end of the dark side. I’m talking about the gray area in working with others that we all have to negotiate daily, and it is mostly around maintaining the appropriate flow of information through your own inbox to others that balances your desire look out for them personally, look out for the best interests of your company, and look out for yourself.

To that end, one of the guidelines I follow is the no-BCC rule. In my mind, using BCC at work is like getting $300 out of an ATM at 3 in the morning. You may have a legitimate reason to do it every once in awhile, but it is likely that the reason you are doing it is something you should rethink.* Not that the BCC itself is the problem, that’s actually a useful little tool when you are doing things like sending out mass contact information updates. it’s more of an indicator of where you’re starting to go mentally – kind of like a dark side canary-in-the-coal-mine. So when you see yourself hit that BCC button, stop for a second and check yourself.

*I have to credit Chris Rock for that one: “Why the #$%^ is an ATM open 24 hours a day?”

Why Twitter Matters

Twitter LogoWhen I heard of and experienced Twitter at South by Southwest Interactive 2007, I groaned. Wow, another way for people to waste time online, I thought.

Twitter, for the uninitiated, is an online messaging service that allows you to broadcast short, 140 character updates (termed “tweets”) to a waiting audience of other users who are also posting updates. The updates are meant to be “what you are doing” at that moment, but really contain all types of short-form content that are as diverse as the users who write them. On Twitter, though, you select the people whose updates you follow, building an aggregated “twitterstream” of the people who matter to you. Similarly people may or may not follow your updates.

I finally started using Twitter a couple of months ago when I saw that it was not, in fact, merely a diversion for internet geeks (in my defense, there are many out there). It has staying power. What I noticed, once I started to use it, is that hidden in Twitter’s simplicity lies a game-changing adjustment in social communications that could end up reinventing the way we do a lot of things in our personal lives and in business. That’s quite a bold statement, so bear with me.

Back in my days as a software developer I worked for a company who did and still does publish a suite of sophisticated tools for managing the business flow of a commodities trading business. Along this business flow we had organized the software into many parts that matched the real-world process. The contracts subsystem would allow users to enter buy/sell agreements, the distribution subsystem then allowed them to match those agreements to the required physical distribution, and so forth into invoicing and accounting.

One of the big issues we contended with early on was the communication between the subsystems. The activities of one always affected another, so when something changed in one domain the others had to be alerted in real time. This was a painful process to code. Which other subsystems needed to be alerted of what, and when? It was even more painful to maintain as the system grew and evolved new capabilities.

In response to this issue, our team rewrote the messaging architecture to what in programming circles is referred to as a publish:subscribe model. This model created a virtual broadcast system where every subsystem would publish its activities (um, “what it was doing”) to the entire system and the other subsystems could choose what messages to pay attention to and which ones to ignore.

This approach was far superior, for many reasons. Here are my top three:

Transparency is rewarded.

First, the higher number of status messages developers published to the broadcast system, the more they were rewarded by not having to worry about what other systems might need. This allowed for a high degree of transparency within the system about what every part was up to at any period of time. This became very helpful for troubleshooting and performance tuning (oversight) of the entire software package.

Autonomy = efficiency

Not having to worry about communicating to other specific subsystems allowed developers to have more autonomy and focus on the more important work of making their specific piece of the system work better and faster. It saved time, and money.

Spontaneous innovation happens.

Availability of more activity information than you think you need leads to creative thinking about how you might actually be able to use the extra stuff. Early into the publish:subscribe model we found developers using information in unexpected ways to make their particular domain more powerful and useful.

So you might be able to see where I’m going with this. Twitter is the publish:subscribe model applied to personal instant messaging. As a result, it is superior to the other existing tools (basically any other IM client), which are based on the de facto one-to-one messaging model – for the reasons I mentioned above. In the Twitter world each person is like a miniature subsystem, broadcasting information it thinks the world might be interested in. And others listen, selectively.

The important thing in understanding Twitter’s importance is to focus on certain contexts for Twitter, not on the platform itself. Without context the tool does seem frivolous. Unless you are a researcher you wouldn’t care about listening to the global twitterstream. It would be an overwhelming torrent of which you might find a miniscule percentage relevant to you.

It’s also important to note that the default approach – to subscribe to your friends – is actually one of the less useful applications of Twitter. I love my friends, but many of them just aren’t doing things minute-to-minute that are of any relevance to me. Personal details for the purpose of friendship don’t usually require instantaneous communication (unless you like to stalk your friends), which is why social networking websites and one-to-one IM work just fine for those purposes – not to mention old-fashioned and still far superior technologies like using a phone or (gasp) actually spending time together. Plus, real friendship is forged and bolstered by the slow-moving plate tectonics of our lives, over the long term – not by the daily humdrum of changing moods and insignificant occurrences.

The best application I see is actually at the workplace, or really any club or organization that has to get things done. In the same way that my old company’s system had parts, so organizations have departments, and departments have people. People at work benefit greatly from timely transparency with each other. The more autonomy every department/person can have, the more resources it/he/she can focus on the appointed task. And the creativity that leads to broader capabilities and innovation is fueled by an understanding of what others are thinking and doing.

So Twitter-like technologies might allow workplaces to function more efficiently and creatively, but why am I making the wild claim that it will reinvent the way we do things? Well, if you had an internal Twitter and a profile page to post longer documents, photos, and files at the office, would you even need email? How often does a lack of transparency, either intended or unintended, hinder your group accomplishment? Think about it.

Would you need a boss? Would your boss really need a boss? Would you ever need to have a meeting? Or would, through Twitter, the organization be able to function more democratically, instantaneously solving problems? Given a couple of “elected” leaders and judges, could organizations become almost completely flat and dispense with the immense overhead of traditional command-and-control management? Consider it.

What if you injected the twittering of your customers into the mental collective? Could your whole organization provide customer service? Could getting your product or service to market become extremely agile, taking input from your body of customers in near real-time?

How we do business in the future (Enterprise 2.0?) could be radically changed, in a way that makes us all more productive, and more satisfied, all because of a little website cutely named Twitter.

UPDATE: Strangely, Max Kalehoff published a good post with exactly the same title as mine, on the same day. Not implying any shenanigans, our posts are very different. Just saying it must mean that a lot of people are figuring out that Twitter “matters.”

Rapid experimentation, not irrational exuberance

BubbleI’ve read literally hundreds of articles and attended several panels during the past year all based around the question of whether we are in a Web 2.0 “bubble” or not. Is all the money being thrown at web businesses these days essentially a duplicate of the Web 1.0 bubble which so many us were swept up in?

My opinion has settled on “NO,” for a few reasons.

Money. There is money on the web this time. Google is making tons of it. Making money on the web is a tangible thing in 2.0, not based on theories generated by technophiles and marketers (Disclaimer: I am both). It’s not irrational to pursue a piece of that pie.

Failing Cheap. If you look at the amount of money spent on starting web businesses and the proportion of that money that is wasted in failure, it’s not out of line with what happens in the real world. The mistake people make is to think about it in terms of the number of failed businesses they see, not in terms of the money that’s failing. Web businesses have very low barriers to entry – that is, they take very little money to start capital-wise and the expertise to start them is easy to hire or even to obtain for free (ownership stake). This is in contrast to other types of physical businesses that require lots of seed money and niche expertise – manufacturing, retail, or even mom-and-pop restauranteuring. A failed web business, in most cases, probably burned through less than $300K, which compared to the Web 1.0 cost of failure (often $30 MM instead of $300K) is a true bargain.

Web 1.0 hangover. Most of the people who sit around worrying about if we are in another bubble, and talking/blogging about a potential doomsday, are people who were in the first one and have scars. While that experience no doubt has been positive in making them more rational businesspeople, it can also cause a risk aversion that can be very limiting. Startups are very risky by nature (see my second point about lots of failure), so a lot of folks who were the most traumatized find it hard to approach the situation with much optimism these days.

This period in the Internet’s history is a period of rapid, rational growth – where lots of bets will be placed and many will fail. But some will succeed too, and it’s by focusing on those success stories, and the sound business fundamentals behind them, that we can avoid the urge to panic. What do you think?

Photo Credit: dopiaza

Bill Parcells leadership gems

Bill ParcellsGetting an MBA will teach you a lot of important things about management and leadership, but it’s important to balance out the lessons you take from academics with lessons from the good old School of Hard Knocks. I can think of very few people (other than my grandfather) who might be more qualified to teach at that school than Bill Parcells, legendary football coach and most recently coach of America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys.

The other night in the Monday Night Football pregame Ed Werder brought up the fact that Bill had given Tony Romo (current Cowboys’ quarterback and former Parcells player) 11 lessons on leadership that Tony still has posted in his locker. In a rare glimpse behind the curtain, Bill stared straight into the camera and broke all those lessons down:

  1. Ignore other opinions. Outsiders (spouses, friends, media) don’t know what’s happening here.
  2. Clowns can’t run a huddle.
  3. Fat quarterbacks can’t avoid the rush. Train.
  4. Know the job cold. Study.
  5. Know your own players.
  6. Be the same guy every day.
  7. Throwing the ball away is a good play. (Avoid disastrous turnovers and other mistakes.)
  8. Learn to manage the game. Never take your eye off the clock.
  9. Get your team in the end zone. (Individual statistics don’t matter.)
  10. Don’t panic. Our ship can’t have a panic button.
  11. Don’t be a celebrity quarterback. We need battlefield commanders.

These are as applicable to the Fortune 500 as they are to the football field. I think my favorite is “clowns can’t run a huddle,” though they are all great.

After Bill had finished, all Chris Berman could say was “wow.” And the audience knew for just a minute what it would be like to be coached by one of the greats.

Watch it

Realities of offshoring boom settling in

Global IndiaA recent article in Business Week asks, “Is the Party Over for Indian Outsourcers?” and points to some interesting trends that indicate a cooling in the offshoring boom that has been so prevalent for the past 15 years. India has led the vanguard by providing fertile ground for American and European companies looking to find cheaper ways to get services like technical support, testing, development, and internal corporate processes done without impacting quality:

Yet behind this show of supreme confidence lurks deep unease. A confluence of adversities is at play. They include an appreciating rupee that is cutting into earnings, a severe shortage of qualified talent at home, and a cap on H-1B worker visas to the U.S., along with pre-2008 election protectionism threats.

At my current job we offshore/outsource certain aspects of what we do to India, and are exploring expanding our efforts there. But the realities this article mentions are things we run into also – offshoring is simply becoming more difficult to pull off profitably, and India’s best talent is becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to access (turnover is a big issue). Plus, our services firms here (Accenture, IBM, etc.) have become so good at the global game now that they are accelerating the market and making it harder for less skilled outsourcers (like my small marketing agency here) to go direct.

This pick-up in global efficiency is a permanent shift. India was the first, but other fast followers like China, Eastern Europe, and the Pacific Rim are already being jumped on by the likes of Accenture. That unique, long arbitrage of the past decade won’t exist again. The good thing for India is that they have built several billion dollar companies as a result of being first that will likely continue to be global players when the dust settles.

What does this mean for the rest of us? Well, the time will soon come when most firms stateside will need other reasons to offshore/outsource, such as exploiting the time difference (for 24/7 services) or particular regional or content expertise. Simply saving cash won’t be a good enough reason on its own.

[Photo Credit: Shruti Gaonkar]

The growing guinea pig

Guinea PigI heard once that a guinea pig’s size maintains a relationship with the size of its cage, so that it won’t grow much bigger than the room in which it has to live. Sadly, I don’t think this has any basis in science (at least, none that I could find) and is a suburban myth, but I have used it over the years to describe a phenomenon I first encountered in my mid-twenties – the ability I had to effortlessly adjust my personal costs and lifestyle upward when I would get a raise at work.

It seemed like my spending (the guinea pig) had no problem filling up the cage (my take-home pay), no matter how big the cage got. I recently picked up on a related blog post at Signal vs. Noise that actually reveals the intellectual axiom, Parkinson’s Law, which describes this phenomenon beyond just personal finances:

Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” A more succinct phrasing also commonly used is “work expands to fill the time available.”

The context above is a work task (the pig) and the time allotted to complete it (the cage), which is also valid. The less busy you are, the longer everything seems to take. Understanding this leads to a lot of practical applications when it comes to managing your own time and workload, or other peoples’ time and workload if that’s part of your job description. Parkinson, a 1950’s management guru, has a lot of other wisdom to relate, including such gems as “Men enter local politics solely as a result of being unhappily married.”

You as a sponge

SpongebobI think everyone has noticed themselves, at some time or another, unconsciously picking up the slang, style, or even mannerisms of friends and coworkers. It seems that we have all have this sponge-like ability to soak things up and make them our own. I think this is something we are all pre-programmed to do as social animals – as babies we start right off learning the languages, accents, and even expressions of our parents – and we never stop.

This sprang to mind while reading an entry in Seth’s blog on marketing, who points out a recent study on how obesity is contagious. It brings to light something all of us who consider ourselves strong and independent hate to admit: we are constantly and deeply influenced by the company we keep, it happens unconsciously in ways that we can’t prevent, and it goes much deeper than our percentage body fat. At any point we might become more carefree, more careless, more religious, more promiscuous, more motivated, more happy or depressed – based on the people who are around us.

There are many contexts in which remembering this simple fact is useful – at home (how is your significant other changing you and you him/her? who are your kids hanging out with?) and at work (how does your team influence each other? how can you introduce a product into a group of heavy influencers in the market?). In that art most tied to influence, sales, it explains how the most successful salespeople open up opportunities to influence by being the kind of person those prospects want to be around.

But more personally, it’s a good piece of introspection. Who in your life influences you to be more like you want to be? More importantly, who really takes you off-track? The people you have in your life is a choice, why did you choose the ones you have?

You can’t change the fact that you are a sponge, but you can change who provides the inputs.

UPDATE: I like the related post over on Signal vs. Noise, In the Presence of Greatness

The dangers of content marketing

Boring PresentationLast night I attended a very disappointing marketing roundtable at my MBA alma mater. These roundtables are typically what I define as “content marketing” – that is, a service provider comes in and gives some intellectual property away for free in the hopes that you will be interested enough to pay for more. I encounter more and more of this – free online newsletters, webinars, conferences, or even blogs <gulp>.

Sometimes content marketing works, and typically this is because the service provider is a research firm that is in the business of generating compelling content – or if they aren’t in research they have made a strong investment and generated some good content that they aren’t afraid to give away. Gartner is a good example of a research firm that realizes the importance of these events and invests heavily in them – their CRM conference last year was very good.

The problem is that 90% of the content marketing I have participated in doesn’t work because the content just isn’t compelling, and it leaves me feeling frustrated because my time was wasted.

Take last night – the presenter (who shall remain nameless) was there to present on creativity and how important it is in the work place. He was not well prepared or rehearsed, his content was common sensical and poorly designed from a visual standpoint, and at one point when he ran a video it was almost over by the time he figured out how to turn the volume up and the lights down (he hadn’t tested it beforehand). Ok, so there are a lot of things wrong there, but even if he had presented flawlessly the content would have killed him. It just didn’t get me thinking in new directions at all.

Content marketing sounds great to providers, but the problem is that when they actually get into it they play it too close to the vest. They get afraid that they are tipping their hand too much (or maybe they are afraid that their potential customers will realize how shallow the pool actually is). As a result they give presentations that just waste people’s time, and make them less apt to buy, not more.

Be careful when you are considering content marketing, put your best stuff out there, and don’t be afraid to test it and pull the plug if the content isn’t where it needs to be yet. It may be the only chance you get with that audience.

[Photo Credit: Michael Brockmeyer – the look on that woman’s face is priceless]