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Wheels falling off

One of the things I enjoy most about being in business is its ever changing nature. I’ve noticed a particular pattern that I liken to powering down a mountain at 1,000 miles per hour only to hit a bump and suddenly have your wheels start to fall of. You madly scramble to re-attach the wheels properly whilst still powering down the hill. Once you pull through you’re back powering down the mountain, feeling like an unstoppable F1 driver.

Like I said, I love this feeling. Especially that moment when you pull the wheels back on.

The bumps might come about because you’re growing – you’ve got to pull the team together for some extra effort until your new hire comes on – or they might come about because something didn’t go as planned.

Earlier in the business I’d get quite worried when we hit the bump. Overtime I’m getting better at seeing the bumps before they occur and having the confidence that we’ll pull the wheels back on.

Fun times.

Self evaluation using the Characteristics of Admired Leaders

Knowing that I’m always keen to devour anything related to personal development or business my wonderful wife Susie bought me “The Leadership Challenge” for Christmas.

Early on in the book Kouzes and Posner put forward the characteristics of admired leaders based on studies they’ve conducted asking leaders’ constituents to describe what they look for in a leader they would be most willing to follow. Over numerous studies four characteristics continue to stand out:

  1. Honesty
  2. Forward-thinking
  3. Competent
  4. Inspiring

I think that this list is a great tool for self evaluation purposes. If you are reflecting on something that occurred and wondering whether you lead the situation well then you can quickly evaluate yourself against these four characteristics.

I caution against using it  as a list of “things that I must do to be a good leader” because it lists the symptoms or effects of  the character, passion, commitment, beliefs and understanding operating on a deeper level. For example, a reader could take this as “well if I just act forward-thinking then I can lead people.” I personally believe that you must be forward thinking and being forward thinking comes from a deep interest in and understanding of the area you are leading people through. Similarly, a reader of the book might be tempted to think “well if I just act inspiringly then people will follow me.” But you can’t inspire others if you aren’t inspired yourself; when you are inspired yourself, that will just rub off on others. If you are looking to exhibit the characteristics that people look for in a leader then you need to look under the covers.

$25 million dollars for Robots

This is fantastic. Mail.ru CEO Dmitry Grishin has created a $25 million towards robots.

It was always my passion. I studied robotics at university. I was excited about what robots can bring to society. But one of the biggest problems 10 to 20 years ago was that it was very expensive. Now because of new technology – including smartphones – a lot of components have become very cheap. You can spend a few thousand dollars and build robots.

You can read more on the New Scientist website.

Entrepreneurial Sales versus Sales Sales

At lunch this week I was chatting to Natasha from Streethawk about sales. The conversation bought out an interesting concept: Entrepreneurial Sales versus Sales Sales. Let me explain the difference.

Sales Sales

This is your standard kind of selling. You have a proven product, it has been sold in the past and you know it can be sold again. You know how to qualify people out of the pipeline, you know what the objections are, you know how to overcome them and you know what the key benefits are.

You can pick up a book like my favourite How to Master the Art of Selling by Tom Hopkins, something from Zig Ziglar or attend any of the many sales training conferences and events.

Entrepreneurial Sales

This is a different kind of sales. You have an unproven or partially proven product. The difficulty here is you don’t know who to qualify out, you don’t know what the objections are, and when you find them you don’t know if they can actually be overcome or if you just aren’t capable of it.

It is almost a form of research that, at the same time, you are trying to get a result from (cash in the bank).

I wonder whether there really is a difference. Whether it is more about sniffing out a market that can be sold into (playing the role of Entrepreneur) and then when you find one that you know can be sold into you put on your Sales hat and start prospecting like mad.

It occurs to me that the ability to sniff out of a market might be something that can only come through putting your Sales hat on and trying to sell into a few markets that don’t exist (but that you thought did).

Inspiration from Sporting Nation

At the end of Sporting Nation (a documentary on ABC) there were some great, thought provoking insights from some elite athletes. My favourite was from Herb Elliot.

Herb recounted a conversation he had early in his career, I think it was with his soon to be Olympic coach. After some discussion his coach said “so why do you want to do nothing but focus on running around and around in circles for the next 3 years, 7 days a week?” His coach answered for him (I’m paraphrasing here):

“You want to have such an intense narrow focus because it will:

  • allow you to experience things you will never otherwise experience
  • allow you to understand things about yourself that you never would if you didn’t push yourself
  • give you a great sense of self-respect
  • give you a sense of self-reliance

I find it fascinating listening to the experiences of people that have achieved greatness at something. Their experience is, at a psychological and philosophical level, always so applicable elsewhere.

Here were some other take aways:

  • There will always be negative things in your mind, you must learn to beat them with your attitude and not take notice of them.
  • What you do must be about the intrinsic value of the activity itself rather than the extrinsic reward.

Making Big Decisions: My Approach

I’m facing a big decision and I want to make sure I’m making the right decision. I’m usually quite good at making decisions quickly and decisively (I’d be the first to admit they aren’t always right). However one decision has been causing me trouble and chewing up a lot of my brain space. So I decided to spend a morning writing down a framework and approach that I will use to make this decision and future big decisions. The idea being that at the end of this I will have a decision making framework that will help me (1) to avoid making the same mistake twice and (2) evolve it overtime to make better and better big decisions in the face of greater and greater uncertainty.

Overall philosophy: When it comes to any decision with unknowns I believe that your conscious, rational brain cannot find the answer alone. Your conscious, rational brain is useful for processing the information at hand, attempting to remove biases but its ultimate responsibility is gathering and preparing this information for the irrational, emotional part of the brain. It is your subconscious, irrational and emotional brain that is the ultimate (and best) decision maker when faced with many unknowns.

I’m not alone in thinking like this. Many scholars that study big strategic decisions in business think like this, for example, take a read of something from Daniel Kahneman. You can listen to actor and comedian Stephen Fry talking about the feeling behind a decision.

So to come up with a “Making Big Decisions Framework” will require a process that guides the mind through use of the best of the rational brain with the best of the emotional brain.

Phase 1: Process everything.

This phase is about processing all the information at hand in as many ways as possible and processing the information in a way that digs into your subconscious or emotional responses to the decision. To ensure you have done this properly you will probably need to do the following:

  1. List your instincts.
  2. List and describe your alternatives (see Lifehacker for a very analytical way of doing this).
  3. List different ways of looking at the decision.
  4. List the risks
  5. Use Jeff Bezo’s regret minimisation framework (do the thing that will leave you with the least amount of regrets)
  6. Write down what happened last time you were in a similar situation.
  7. Assess each of the above.
  8. Assess your emotions, your emotional responses to the above and your biases
    See HBR blog and see Stephen Fry’s comments on really understanding how you feel about something.

Phase 1.a: Consult others.

[Edit: made this a separate section, in an early draft it was, then it wasn’t, now it is – it’s important – thanks Dave]

Now that your thoughts are straight, start gathering the opinions of others. This is a very important step, if done correctly it can enable you to stand on the shoulders of giants, see through the eyes of someone that has been in a similar situation.

However, if done incorrectly it can lead you a stray. Here are a few things to remember when consulting others:

  • Others have biases and approaches that they prefer – ask yourself “why have they said that? why do they think that way? why have they arrived at that statement?”
  • You may have presented information to them in a way that has made them respond that way.
  • It’s easy to be commentator. It’s a whole other ball game being on the field.
  • Ultimately you need to decide, not someone else.
After going through Phase 1 you might have some idea as to what your decision will be – then again you might not. Regardless, you could go through the above again or you could move onto phase 2.

Phase 2: Take timeout.

There are good reasons for taking timeout. First, if you can’t reach a decision doing so will allow your subconscious brain to mull over everything you did in Phase 1 and maybe produce an answer for you.  John Cleese does a better job of explaining it than I do.

Second, if you are feeling pressured taking timeout will give your brain the space it requires to think freely and taking timeout might make you realise the outcome of your decision probably won’t lead to your end. Again, John Cleese does a great job of explaining this.

After you’ve taken some timeout you might go back to processing more information or you might be ready to make the decision. Either way, it is important to be very clear in your mind about what you want from life – what is the bigger picture within which this decision fits?

Phase 3: Make the decision.

Make the decision, write your decision down and write down why you have chosen to make that decision.

I’ve always found that doing this I will either say “yep that’s the one” or “wait, now that I see it in writing it this isn’t what I want.” If you thought the latter you’ll probably want to go back through Phases 1 and 2.

If you’re still stuck flip a coin. My father-in-law will fondly recount stories of Board meetings where, when the Board couldn’t reach a decision he would flip a coin. They would either agree with the wisdom of the enlightened coin or they would disagree, thereby knowing the right decision is the one not suggested by the coin.

Phase 4: Decision made. Don’t look back.

Once a decision is made you can’t look back. You must give the decision 100% of your focus and effort.

It is important to remember it is impossible to know the right answer and maximise your return on the decision. There are often too many unknowns. Instead, carrying the decision through will quickly reveal whether it is worthwhile. Nothing is set in stone, it is more important that decisions are made quickly and decisively… then corrected quickly if they turn out to be the wrong one (this is the subject of another post).

Don’t let “just this once” get you

My great office buddy Sri pointed me at “The Trap of Marginal Thinking” by Clayton Christensen the other day. I must say it truly struck a cord with me.

Here are my favourite parts:

The marginal cost of doing something “just this once” always seems to be negligible, but the full cost will typically be much higher. Yet unconsciously, we will naturally employ the marginal-cost doctrine in our personal lives. A voice in our head says, “Look, I know that as a general rule, most people shouldn’t do this. But in this particular extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s okay.” And the voice in our head seems to be right; the price of doing something wrong “just this once” usually appears alluringly low. It suckers you in, and you don’t see where that path is ultimately headed or the full cost that the choice entails.

Many of us have convinced ourselves that we are able to break our own personal rules “just this once.” In our minds, we can justify these small choices. None of those things, when they first happen, feels like a life-changing decision. The marginal costs are almost always low. But each of those decisions can roll up into a much bigger picture, turning you into the kind of person you never wanted to be.

It was something running through my head today when I almost compromised on a hiring decision. The guy was so close to being great but then failed dramatically at one of our coding tests. Failing at the coding test or not completing it in an above average way is a deal breaker. I almost bent the rules, I went so far as to invite him back the following day to work on something together in the hope that things would workout.

Then I thought of the words quoted above and asked myself, if I bend the rules just this once, then what happens? I’ve compromised the business. The others that work with us will see this and it will cascade like a snow ball destroying everything in its path (… slight exaggeration but I like exaggeration).


Scott Middleton
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