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Archive for July, 2013

Maintain Your Brain

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/tellatic/6818608444/Thanks to brain imaging scientists now know that your brain keeps growing as long as you’re alive.

Quite a difference from the old view that your brain stops making new neural connection around puberty.

Another new idea is that your brain needs just as much exercise as the rest of you, especially as you age.

Thinking is essentially a process of making neural connections in the brain.  To a certain extent, our ability to excel in making the neural connections that drive intelligence is inherited.  However, because these connections are made through effort and practice, scientists believe that intelligence can expand and fluctuate according to mental effort.

It’s simple; we’re talking Pilates for your brain.

And a simple way to do it, thank to some of the leading brains at Stanford and, what else, but a startup.

Now, a new San Francisco Web-based company has taken it a step further and developed the first “brain training program” designed to actually help people improve and regain their mental sharpness.  Called Lumosity, it was designed by some of the leading experts in neuroscience and cognitive psychology from Stanford University.

UPDATE: While Lumosity has been debunked by the FTC, the science of using your brain and building new neural paths is well founded.

And, like physical exercise, you don’t want to wait until age makes the exercise a necessity.

Your brain will thank you. And as you age your family, friends and the healthcare system will all thank you.

After all, you don’t want to end up an old codger or biddy.

Flickr image credit: tellatic

Ducks in a Row: Does Your Culture Quack?

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmtnprairie/8409186334/How do you describe your culture?

Most bosses describe theirs as more positive and in more glowing terms than their people do.

Which makes sense, given that most people see their own actions in the best light and culture is a reflection-made-real of the boss’s own MAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy™).

Is it really a cause for concern if your team describes it differently, more negatively or as downright horrible, especially if their complaints seem nit-picking or sound more like whining to you?

Even if you see nothing wrong with it; even if it reflects most/all your previous managers, you had better pay attention to other opinions if you want to have a strong, productive, high retention/low turnover organization—whether team or the entire company.

Or, in the shortened version of what Douglas Adams so famously said, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it most likely is a duck.

Flickr image credit: USFWS Mountain Prairie

The Secret of Improving

Monday, July 29th, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/findyoursearch/5034002771/Personal and professional growth is a major focus for most people—that’s one of the reasons you’re reading this blog.

We research, dissect, write, discuss, preach, teach, and study, all with the goal of improving ourselves.

No matter what you seek to learn/improve think of yourself as a computer.


In computing, the term I/O refers to input, whatever is received by the system, and output, that which results from the processing.

Programmers know that the results coming out of the computer won’t be any better than the information given it and this phenomenon is know as “garbage in/garbage out.”

And there you have the secret.

No matter if it’s career-related, relationship-focused personal-internal or something else, I/O applies to everything in life.

What comes out is a function of what you put in.

Blindly accepting everything offered by even the most brilliant source will result in garbage out at some point.

Learning/improving requires critical thinking on your part—no one person, past, present or future, has all the answers.

You need to evaluate the available information, take a bit from here and a bit from there, apply it to your situation and, like a computer, process it.

The result will be at least slightly different from what you started with, because you’ve added the flavor of your own life experiences, knowledge and MAP to the mix—and that’s good, it shouldn’t be an exact copy.

Because, as Oscar Wilde once said, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken.”

Flickr image credit: FindYourSearch

If the Shoe Fits: Multitask or Focus?

Friday, July 26th, 2013

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mI’ve always believed that the ability to multitask is destructive, a crock or, at best, wishful thinking, as I’ve said more than once.

Of course, I’m frequently told that multitasking is the only way to function and that if I were younger I would understand that, blah, blah.

Founders and startup people are especially likely to tell me my advice to focus is dinosaurian, so I’m delighted every time I read the same comments from experts, such as Y Combinator partner Sam Altman,

“For whatever reasons, many founders love to spend time on anything else—worrying about the details of corporate structures, interviewing lawyers, doing a really good job bookkeeping, etc.  All of this pretending-to-run-a-company gets in the way of actually running a company.”

And recent research from Stanford University on the impact of heavy media consumption.

Results showed that heavy media multitaskers  are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.

I’m not going to write more, because I would rather you read Altman, Stanford and my old posts and the links in them—I’m sure their opinion will carry more weight.

However, I’m doubtful it will make a difference, since most people consume stuff they don’t want to know through a “but me” filter.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Entrepreneurs: Comments from Founder’s Showcase

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

kg_charles-harrisI attended the Founder’s Showcase last Wednesday, and found it tremendously interesting from several perspectives.  As a founder who has started several companies, of which a couple have been successful, it is really interesting to see how the startup and funding environment has changed.

The basic format of the Showcase is that companies are selected to pitch to a panel of VCs who then provide them with feedback and advice after having had a chance to ask questions after the pitch.  Just hearing the feedback from the panel was very interesting, but also to see the different types of companies that were being pitched.  There are a lot of very interesting startups out there…

After sitting through a day of pitches, feedback and interacting with other founders, my main takeaway is that things are getting a lot harder out there for founders who are not well connected in the Silicon Valley environment.  There are a plethora of good companies out there that have created interesting businesses and technologies.

To get funding today, it is not enough to have an idea.  It seems that what is required is to have removed a significant portion of the risk factors (technology risk, development risk, team risk, market risk and business model risk) from the venture to get an investment from an Angel or VC.

Professional and semi-professional investors (VCs and Angels) have so many deals to choose from that, of course, they will choose the ones that will bring the highest potential return.  And this has a strong correlation with low risk and rapid turnaround to the next funding round.  Having a completed product and some customer traction implies that much of the risk has been assessed and surpassed, making an investment very attractive.  If you don’t have a product and paying customers, know that this is what you are competing against.

Some time ago, it was easier to get funding based on an idea or a prototype, but this seems to no longer be the case in the majority of companies.  So founders have to be willing to sacrifice all the way to product and customers before they receive funding.

Another main takeaway from the Founder’s Showcase was the glaring lack of companies doing deeply technological things.

Most of the businesses presenting were essentially new business models with at web/app frontend for a particular industry segment.  Almost none of the companies were working on difficult technological innovations.

But speculation as to why this is must be left for a future post.

KG Charles-Harris is CEO of Emanio and a special contributor to MAPping Company Success.

Steve Ballmer’s Lack of Content

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/kamikura/192323509/When Microsoft announced its much ballyhooed new strategy and resulting management changes I commented that you can’t change culture, especially an intentionally siloed culture, by edict.

I didn’t go into what seemed to me a strategy with a serious lack of solid content; these days we all know that not only is content king, but the it’s source of authenticity.

I assumed that it was my unwillingness (boredom) to read the analysis offered by media, let alone Steve Ballmer’s actual long-winded statement to the Microsofties, that made me miss it.

As has been said over and over by experts, “culture eats strategy for lunch” (breakfast, in come cases), and while clear communications is as great a focus for me as culture, I just couldn’t make myself read it.

Fortunately, Wally Bock at Three Star Leadership has more patience and he offered some great analysis and comments, which are reposted below with his kind permission.

Microsoft and the Strategy of Everything

On July 13, 2013, Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Ballmer sent a lumbering, poorly edited, 2600 word email to Microsoft employees, announcing the company’s new strategy. As awful as the memo was, the strategy is worse.

When I read some of the news accounts, I felt like I was experiencing an updated version of Akira Kurosawa’s classic, Rashomon. In that film, people who participate in the same event each describe it differently. In this case, news organizations that got the same information each describe Microsoft’s new strategy differently.

The New York Times wrote about how “Microsoft Overhauls, the Apple Way.” The Wall Street Journal looked at the same announcement and said that “Microsoft Shake-Up Aims to Speed Products.” And the Mercury News told us that “Microsoft unveils major overhaul in effort to focus on mobile.”

Those very different reports sent me to the Microsoft site and the text of Steve Ballmer’s email. There, he tells us that “We are rallying behind a single strategy as one company.” Sounds good. And what might that single strategy be? Here goes.

“Going forward, our strategy will focus on creating a family of devices and services for individuals and businesses that empower people around the globe at home, at work and on the go, for the activities they value most.”

Try reading that without taking a breath or tripping over tangled syntax. Doesn’t exactly have the ring of “A PC on every desk and in every home” does it?

As I interpret it, Microsoft will make products and provide services which they will sell to individuals and businesses in the US and other countries. Egad! Is there anything Microsoft has chosen not to do?

There’s no focus at all. Being everything to everyone is usually a pretty sure way not to be much of anything to anybody.

And there’s nothing to fire up the passions that drive engagement. Would you really leap out of bed in the morning all charged up to “focus on creating a family of devices and services for individuals and businesses?”

This is not a strategy to build long term, sustainable competitive advantage. It is a strategy for rotting slowly from the inside out.

Thanks, Wally.

Flickr image credit: Masaru Kamikura

Ducks in a Row: Culture Builds Talent

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/yarik-ok/7936908700/Yesterday we focused on the importance of, and managers’ responsibility for, continually building their people, so they are ready for the challenges their company will face in the future, as opposed to firing them for having the wrong skill-set.

Later on I was discussing the whole terminate vs. develop thing with EMANIO CEO KG Charles-Harris and he made an interesting comment.

There is no question that creating a good culture is essential and underinvested in.  However, there are cultural biases in the US that are different from some other countries.  And while there is something to be said for the extreme success of American business, my background is in Sweden, which has the highest number of multinationals per capita. Clearly there is something that a country of 9 million is doing right.  

While there are plenty of companies that do it right and studies to prove that doing it right is good for the bottom line, US companies are infamous for short-term thinking driven by Wall Street’s quarterly mentality.

Even when the right culture and supporting policies are in place managers at all levels need to monitor and make sure that the managers under them are encouraging their people to take advantage of them and often that doesn’t happen.
Further, great culture isn’t self-sustaining; it needs thought and TLC so it can grow and change as the company grows and changes, without losing the traits that make it great.

But if a culture that supports building people pays off, why doesn’t it happen more often?

The simple, but sad, answer is that building and sustaining a great culture that develops its people, as opposed to considering them expendable, is work—and people are lazy.

Flickr image credit: Yarik. OK

Why Netflix’s Patty McCord is (Mostly) Wrong

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1193409“Troy,” a CEO I work with off and on, sent me a link to an article referencing Netflix Chief Talent Officer Patty McCord’s explanation of why you should immediately fire underperformers to explain (justify) his own actions.

McCord’s core advice is to think six months in advance, about what the company can and should do better, which will highlight the people who don’t have the skill set or drive to get there. (…) “I tell an employee I’m going to put you on a performance improvement plan, but the truth is they don’t actually know how to do what I need someone in their job to do. I did my six months out thing and realized she wasn’t qualified, and I put her on a plan even though it’s not an issue of performance, it’s an issue of skill set.”

This was the latest salvo in our ongoing disagreement on managerial responsibility when it comes to people—a subject we vehemently disagree on.

Troy says that young, fast-growth companies have no time to develop their people and when you have a lot of capital and very stringent targets to achieve [Wall Street quarterly reports, ed], you have to think differently.

I say that it’s mostly management’s fault, especially in larger companies like Netflix because they should be growing their people all the time so their skill-set is ready for the challenge; obviously, I’m not referring to those employees who need to be dragged kicking and screaming into their future.

Startups, fast growing and established companies all need to add the right talent to get where they are going.

Good managers assess the situation, current and future, and inform employees regarding their promotional opportunities.

Further, good managers keep them informed of what new skills they will need in the future, as well as the best way to acquire them.

I read about and know personally thousands of good managers who work hard to grow their people, so they are ready for the new challenges coming down the road.

There are also plenty of companies with good programs in place that bad managers won’t use.

Yes, people deserve to know the truth regarding their opportunities and McCord’s approach when termination is the right course is extremely humane—but few companies would spend the resources.

“Instead, I could have told the employee, ‘here’s what I’m going to need six months from now, and here’s the talent and skills I’ll need. Then you tell her, ‘It’s not you. I don’t want you to fail. I don’t want to publicly humiliate you.’”

However, if that person’s actual manager had been doing his/her job the situation McCord describes might never have happened.

That’s the part that Troy doesn’t get.

Upgrading employee skills and adding new ones is an ongoing process that requires better and stronger management skills and more work than McCord’s approach—hers is the easy way out.

During my 40+ years around the workforce there have always been managers who build their people and those who don’t.

  • Those who do build understand that people are holistic and it takes more effort to instill cultural understanding and rebuild group morale after someone is terminated than it does to keep upgrading skills.
  • Those who don’t build believe that it’s easier to replace than train/build employees.

But demographics are against them. Replacing people will only become harder as the economy improves and the number of working people and their experience continues to go down.

stock.xchng image credit: arte_ram

If the Shoe Fits: The Top Five Things To Remember If You’re A CEO

Friday, July 19th, 2013

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mA Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here.

The Top Five Things To Remember
If You’re A CEO
  1. Foremost, you are guardian of the big picture. You must clearly identify the goals of the company, then work with your people to turn them into specifics. Get their buy-in by making sure they understand how their personal goals, the company’s goals, and others’ interact. The biggest rewards at all levels should go to those who understand the company’s goals, and ethically do whatever is necessary to achieve them — especially when it takes precedence over their personal goals.
  2. You set the tone of the organization. If you’re political, secretive, nitpicking, or querulous, that is how your organization will be. No matter what — your people will do as you do, not as you say.
  3. People produce best if they know, and help determine, the range of their control — this is the RampUp Management Box. Their decisions inside the box are final; decisions outside it require approval. Through discussion of their performance, the box will grow or shrink. Your company’s strength will increase in direct proportion to your people’s growth, so make their boxes as big as possible.
  4. Never criticize an employee in the presence of others. Praise in public, criticize in private.
  5. People are your company’s most sustainable competitive edge. Enhance your people’s ability to do their jobs by clearly defining and communicating what they are.

To change what they do…change how you think!

Entrepreneurs: More than Money

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

venture-america-fellowsWanting to make a difference has been one of the top three reasons for people of all ages and backgrounds to join or leave companies for decades and it’s only increasing with today’s attitudes.

Many of today’s most desirable new grads are applying to Venture for America, a nonprofit organization that selects fellows to work in cities, like Detroit, that aren’t the usual magnets for top, young college grads from the most elite universities.

They are turning down six-figure salaries with prestigious firms for the chance to have real impact.

This is the same reason that most people join startups—small team means a bigger impact by each person.

Outsiders and the media most often focus on startups as a path to riches, but that’s not what’s uppermost in the minds of most candidates.

While many crave work on the bleeding edge, whether of technology, medicine, business process innovation or something else, 99.9% are there to have an impact and make a difference.

Even if the effort doesn’t succeed, they want to look back at that time with satisfaction and know that their own actions helped get it as far as it went.

Efforts like Venture for America and the opportunities they create are the best chance to change the course of potential failures that permeates our country.

We need many more of them.

Image credit: Venture for America

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