Monday, March 31, 2014

The Minnows Feed the Sharks

Most everybody likes a good story because, amongst other things, it helps put information into a context easily understood.  Let me begin this post with just such a story.

"Way back" when I was in college I had four friends who shared an apartment in Moscow, Idaho.  Because the place was large enough to house four guys, there was also room for other accessories.  In this case, the accessory (not counting the huge TV and stereo) was a very large aquarium.  I'm no judge of volume when it comes to fish tanks, but I think this one must have held at least 50 gallons.  When it was time to put actual animals into the aquarium the four gentlemen selected an interesting mix of creatures.  If I remember correctly, here is what was in it:
  • 2 small crabs
  • 1 clownfish
  • 7 ornamental fish (the cheap kind)
  • 4 guppies
  • 3 piranha
Just looking at the list, you can start to form an idea of what happened in that aquarium.  Over the space of about three months there was a steady attrition of fish.  Some of them were found floating belly up but others just...disappeared.  The interesting thing during this time was that, as the fish disappeared, the piranha seemed to be getting bigger.  Fast.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday of that year occurred the first culling.  When everyone returned after about a week, both crabs were gone with only one dismembered claw remaining as a clue.  There were also four more missing fish.  Skipping forward to the Christmas break, the aquarium was down to just two ornamental fish, three guppies (two were newly added), and three large-ish piranha.  The biggest piranha was named "Huey", the second largest "Dewey", and the smallest "Louis" (pronounced Lew-ee).  After we all returned, only Huey remained along with a few chunks here and there what I think was the remains of Dewey and Louis. 

One could say that all the smaller animals and fish were predestined to end up in Huey's stomach.  Which brings us to an interesting perspective on how the world of technology functions today.

As we get started, ask yourself this question.  If you look at any of the "Tech Giants" today (and I'll list a number of them), how many of them are doing much if any innovation?  While hardly scientific, I have personally observed over the years that the larger a tech company grows, the less innovative they become through organic methods.  In other words, as they mature these companies seem to switch their efforts to managing their existing portfolio, not pushing creativity.  Back around Y2k I remember a lot of jokes about Microsoft being like the Borg from Star Trek.  If they saw a company doing anything cool and gaining market share, they would "assimilate" that company.  In the off-chance that you don't know anything about a Borg assimilation, it might be worth it to fire up Netflix/AppleTV/AmazonInstant and watch an episode or two.  I guarantee you'll get the joke.  In fact, I wish I could see into Skype HQ right now to watch all of the newly created drones walking around since Microsoft assim...uh...bought them recently.

Today I see the small startups as the lifeblood of our future technological products and advancement.  They are the minnows that are feeding the sharks in our corporate ecosphere.  And you know something?  I don't think this is a problem at all.  I see it as a symbiotic relationship that benefits all sides.

If you are a minnow (innovator), there is little to encumber you from taking a great idea and getting it "birthed" into the world.  However, as the small innovator you do not have the ability to commercialize your wonder product into something that can benefit the masses.  If you are a shark, it's likely that you have grown too big in size, structure, and bureacracy to have much luck envisioning or innovating in a timeframe fast enough to be relevant.  However, you likely have bucketloads of cash that you can use to separate an individual or small company from their technological marvel.  Everyone ends up benefitting.  After Yahoo! gave young David Karp $1.1 billion for Tumblr, I can guarantee that tens of thousands of young coders and inventors disappeared into their garages to work on the next big thing.

It is a testament to free-(er) market system in the United States that this pipeline transfer of ideas and technologies from smaller to larger entities has developed.  I know the same happens in other parts of the world as well to a lesser extent and is the lifeblood of the future tech industry.

As a finale, let's take a list at a number of larger tech companies and see just how they are fueling their growth in the minnow-to-shark method.

Facebook -- 46 acquisitions in less than nine years including Instagram, WhatsApp, and just recently Oculus (virtual reality!)

Yahoo -- In the two years that Marissa Meyer has been CEO, Yahoo has made over 40 acquisitions including Tumblr and and InterClick.

VMWare -- They have been building their entire mobility strategy around acquired technologies including Nicira and AirWatch.

Cisco -- Over 25 acquisitions since 2010 including Tandberg, Meraki, and Sourcefire.

Citrix -- Almost 15 acquisitions since 2010 including Zenprise, Cloud.com, and Bytemobile.  Citrix is building in large part its entire mobile device management (MDM) strategy around the Zenprise technology.

Google -- This giant shark, or megalodan, has made about 150 acquisitions since 2001.  One of their biggest acquisitions was actually another shark named "Motorola Mobility".  Ever heard of them?  Imagine being able to pay $12.5 billion for another company just so you can have its patents while you throw away all the other components.  And oh, don't forget about Waze, Meebo, and Bump.

Apple -- The Fruit company has been more frugal with its money, which is probably why they have a pirate's hoard of booty, somewhere north of the $100 billion mark.  Still, they have made about 20 acquisitions since the death of Steve Jobs.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Bias for Action

Have you ever wondered if there is a secret recipe for how to succeed in Corporate America?  That is, of course, a silly question - of course you have.  You can walk into any bookstore and see whole sections dedicated to books on how to achieve success in business.  Alternatively, you can visit one of any number of conferences or conventions where people will give you methods/recipes/"secrets" on how to be successful.  I haven't researched the numbers nor do I think it's important.  I'll just guess and say that this whole industry makes at least a billion dollars per year.

No matter what advice is out there, whether it is free or not, I know that there is one thing that all successful people have in common.  As the blog title states, that thing is called a bias for action.  In short, the people who are naturally inclined to take action are, by nature, going to be more likely to succeed.  As an experiment, first take a look at your own company and then select a few others in whatever industry you choose.  The only caveat that I'll throw in is that whatever company you pick has to be at least performing, if not excelling.  (No dying companies please!)  Once you have made your picks, take a close look at the leadership of each.  With only a few exceptions, what you'll see are people who have any number of accomplishments under their belts.  It is almost always the people who are "doing" things that enjoy the successes.  Without action there is no chance to succeed.

I have a number of examples to illustrate my point.  The first is not directly related to "Corporate America" yet is oddly relevant. 
  1. As I write, the current prize for the PowerBall Lottery is around $400 Million.  Someone close to me knew I had purchased a ticket and was telling me just how infinitesimal were my chances of winning.  I answered, "Yes, that's true.  But then again, this was the same case for all the other dozens of millionaires created by PowerBall."  I went on to say, "As bad as my odds are, by actually taking the action of buying a ticket, my odds of winning are exponentially greater than yours!"
  2. Jeff Bezos - In case you didn't know about him, Bezos is the founder and current CEO of Amazon.  He also happens to have a paltry net worth of only about $28 billion dollars.  As successful as Amazon is today, many of us Gen X'ers can remember back in the early 2000s when Amazon was never profitable.  In fact, I remember financial pundits at the time who claimed that the company was all "smoke and mirrors" and would never turn a profit.  What makes Bezos's story so interesting is that he was born into poverty.  He had a teenage mother and a father who was a Cuban immigrant.  He got to where he was by constantly striving to move forward the idea that you could actually buy products over the Internet and be a happy customer.
  3. Oprah Winfrey - she was raised by a single mother, who made less than $28,000 per year, in Nashville Tennessee.  Oprah has spent her life in front of a camera, but what people don't see is the business empire ("HARPO") that she built while not on the air.  She is worth between $3-5 billion dollars, created solely through her own efforts to constantly create and succeed.
While I've pointed to several billionaires above, the point is not to equate only money with success.  Each of us has our unique way for describing it.  No, the point is that success is built upon actions.

Given what I've said above, why isn't everyone action oriented?  After all, it seems so simple, right?  Take action = Success
It doesn't quite work like that.

As author Eric Worre states in his book "Go Pro", there are basically two types of workers in Corporate America.  The first group makes up the bulk of employees who have a goal of showing up, carrying out tasks, and getting paid for their services.  The second is comprised of a much smaller group of individuals who are driven to constantly move forward, improving and enhancing at every step.  Both types of employees are important although they do not always gracefully co-exist.  What separates achievers from the rest is always a bias for action.  In other words, all things considered these people will tend to be more successful because they take more chances to get things right.

If you want to be successful - be all that you can be - develop a bias for action.  Even if you fail a few times or encounter opposition, the simple act of "doing" will always serve you well.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Great Leaders Don't Do...Anything

Don't let the title of this post fool you.  Great leaders do...something...but what is it?

I may have mentioned this recollection in a previous post, but I'll start out with it anyway.  Earlier in my career, around about the year 2000, I was a "youngish" 30-something Group Director with a very large, as in multi-billion dollar, forest products company.  At the time I was in charge of roughly 700 people divided into about 400 internal employees and the rest contractors of different types.  In addition to the stresses of the job, I was also experiencing some "heinous" generational clashes with my peers.  You see, in this company, a person didn't typically get to my level without at least:

a) 20+ years on the job
b) an "acceptable" progression of jobs leading up to the higher position
c) being of an age where people tend to think about the expense of college for their children or at least an impending retirement.

Yes, there I was as a Generation X'er with all my peers being Baby Boomers and even one from the Silent Generation.  Needless to say, I had a much different perspective on what was important and how to approach work (and authority) than did my peers.  I did a lot of learning, mostly from pain-based stimuli, during that time.  As a disclaimer, no one generation has a claim on being "right" or "correct" in its collective outlook.  We just know that they are different.

I had one peer with whom I had more philosophical differences than others.  That's not to say I was always in conflict - I wasn't.  There were plenty of times where we all collaborated.  But I would say is that the generational differences between the overall peer group and me led to more chances for friction. 

One day this peer leveled what he believed, at the time, to be the most devastating criticism of all time against me.  He said: "Christopher, you're a great leader but a really poor manager."  In truth, given my experience in the culture of the company, the criticism was likely true.  I was more interested in leading the team than filling out daily TPS reports.  But at the same time, I deserved some heat for not conforming enough to the corporate culture.  It is never a good idea to be oblivious or insensitive to issues of corporate culture.  To do so is to "thumb your nose" at years of tradition.  Not a good way to be seen as a team player.

So yes, the criticism about not being a "good manager" stung for years afterwards.  That is, until I did some reflection and truly started thinking about the differences between leading and managing.

A great analogy that sums up the differences comes from the life and work of Julia Childs (the super chef of the 20th century).  Julia wrote several definitive cookbooks, each of which laid the groundwork for others to cook truly delicious meals.  Julia was the leader.  If you've recently had one of her dishes, did she cook it for you?  No, she didn't.  Yet without her guidance you would not have had the meal.  The chef who actually produced the meal, no the experience, was likely involved with a whole team.  In this case, the chef was the manager who oversaw all of the preparations needed to make sure you were served.  In the instance of your meal, did Julia Childs do anything?  The answer is "No", but then also "Yes".  I think you can see the distinction. 

Wherever and whenever you find a great leader you can be assured that s/he is surrounded by a number of other great people.  The leader creates the framework but the others execute the task(s) necessary to get things done.  It is for this reason that I use models like the "Talent Triangle" when I hire people for my team.  In order to pursue my continuing dream of being a great leader I know that I cannot also, at the same time, be a great manager or a "doer" of tasks.  Take it from someone who has studied the subject for over a decade - the two are pretty much mutually exclusive.

Yes, great leaders can and do perform tasks all the time.  But in terms of running an organization, almost assuredly the leaders are setting the framework and guidelines that allow the truly great practitioners to execute - what they, in turn, do best.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Connect Me and Get $Paid$

I struggled over exactly how to title this particular post.  I'm guessing that most people, at least at first glance, will think that I'm about to write about LinkedIn or networking of some kind.  While that might make for an interesting read, I'm actually thinking about something else.

Over the past 20 years, humans as a species have gained access to more information and data than anyone could have thought possible in just 1995.  The six year old child of today can access more raw and/or refined data, as an individual, than could every member of the human species, collectively, for all of history.  That is, all history before 1990.  So if a child of today has this capability, what about the rest of us adults?  The truth is that there is more information available to both you and me, right now with the devices within our reach, than we could ever consume. By. Far.  And that's a huge problem for our civilization.

So what's the point?  What's the actual problem?  Let's start with a few questions.  How many of you reading right now do any of the following:
  • Drive while talking on a cellphone, checking texts, and reading emails (when stopped in traffic like me, of course)
  • Check your smart phone every five minutes.  That includes touching it just to make sure it's still there
  • Take a tablet or a laptop with you to watch TV and actually work on those devices while your show is on
  • Check sports scores or news during events when you're not supposed to be on a device
  • Text someone not present while having a meal with someone else
  • Respond to messages during meetings
I don't need to have anyone answer these questions.  The plain truth is that we are all doing most, if not all of the bullet points above.  But the issue that nobody discusses is why we are all "guilty" of these actions. (I say "guilty" because some of the points above have actually become legislated crimes)  For what purpose would almost everyone in the United States, and probably most of the networked world be doing these things?  There has to be a payoff because of the downside of so much connectivity.  The blogger "RooGirl" lists 25 negatives to always being online here.  She also links to an article in the LA Times that says people who are heavily linked into their technology will die off more quickly than those who aren't!

I believe the problem lies less with being connected and more with the manner in which we connect.  Some studies that I have read (but don't cite here) indicate that a seeing (non-blind) human can process about 8 kilobytes (KB) of visual information, or about 10-12 separate images, per second.  That's not much information for the human brain.  Because the eyes do not give us enough information to keep the brain stimulated, humans try to do multiple things at once.  Some call it "multitasking", although I think that term is too simplistic.  There is so much information to be processed and all us want to "drink" from more than just one source at a time. 

No, the real problem lies less in multitasking and more in our interface to information.

For over 50 years, our sole legitimately useful interface with computing devices has been comprised of a screen, keyboard, and most times a mouse.  Yes, there are other exotic interfaces out there that include line-of-sight and voice options, but they are most definitely not mainstream.  What I want/need; what we all want/need; is a more direct way to access, process, and interact with multiple streams of data.  That's not going to happen with the keyboard and screen technology of yesteryear.

The answer has been in science fiction books and shows for years now.  What our planet is demanding and what will emerge as a result of this demand are neural interfaces.  Just what form they will take is up for debate.  But I can tell you that "seeing" and processing information inside of our brains, not outside as done today, is going to be the next big evolution in computing.

So, if you want to be the world's first trillionaire, I would suggest that you start work on neural computing interfaces.  If you can connect me that way and your method works, I promise you that you'll...get...paid.  In fact, you will become the richest person in history.  What are you waiting for?