Category Archives: Leadership

Business Lessons from Agile Development

Reprinted with permission of the Community Magazine Network – because I posted it there 🙂

As a small startup with limited resources and outsized ambitions we have to constantly juggle our technical, and business, roadmap to take advantage of new opportunities and information. We’ve adopted the use of Agile development practices, or at least a variation of it. The purest SCRUM Master would talk about backlogs, sprints, and iteration – basically that means planning and prioritizing, short bursts of activity, then improvement once you see what you have to work with. Why do community magazine publishers care about this? Because this process is useful for business too.

created at: 2010-09-15It’s too easy to get consumed with the work at hand and work head-down without coming up for air. Some people call this working in the business rather than working on the business. Don’t get me wrong, this is a useful skill to possess but if you get off track (or in our business the track itself moves) then when you do come up to surveil your surroundings you’ll find you’re lost. More than that, an Agile approach teaches that some planning is good but too much is a waste of time – I may be paraphrasing.

Knowing when to keep moving full speed ahead as opposed to when to surface is a tricky thing and definitely something we haven’t mastered but I have two suggestions both of which are probably pretty obvious. 1. Go see customers, as I tweeted about my visit with folks who publish 425 & South Sound Magazines, getting that infusion of fresh perspective and energy is a great reality check against what you’re currently consumed with. 2. Schedule times to step back and adhere to it. If you don’t make time you’ll find yourself working on those things that are merely urgent and not necessarily important.

It wouldn’t be a corporate blog post if I didn’t gratuitously plug one of our services. Giving publishers and their teams the ability to step back, even if only for a short time, to share and learn from each other is the reason we created the members-only professional networking environment on MagazineConnect.com. There are a lot of publishers and each are dipping their toes into new things, we bring them together to share and learn actionable insights for their business while still leaving them time to run your business. End of sales pitch.

I’ll close with a football analogy now that we’re heading into the Fall – great offenses need to be able to pass the ball and run the ball. Sure, one sided offenses can be effective for a while or against a given opponent but champions can do both. They’re balanced, able to adapt, agile. Make sure your business is balanced.

The difference between pursuing excellence and being a perfectionist

When we started B-School we had a getting-started week to prepare for the program and lay the foundation for the rest of the MBA education we were to receive over the following two years. We had a seminar with the Glaser’s, a husband and wife team that specialize in equipping people to better handle interpersonal relationships. My classmates embraced and, sometimes, made fun of the 80/20 rule that was introduced. No, it wasn’t the 80% of work is done by 20% of people or 80% of revenue come from 20% of products (although those are both legit).  In this case, the idea was that someone on our study teams (or work teams) could call 80/20 when we were reach a point of diminishing returns to signal that we should move on.

This 80/20 rule is particularly interesting when dealing with a group of Type-A’s because for some Type-A is synonymous with being a perfectionist, getting perfect grades and being at the top of the class. And, for some, Type-A manifests itself by getting involved in as many activities as possible. In some cases it means both but our generation seems to have a better drive for work/life balance.

The point of all this is that by working with 100 very smart people I’ve started be able to spot the difference between those that are pursuing excellence and those that are simply perfectionists. Let me be clear, you can pursue excellence and be a perfectionist but I don’t believe they go together often. The reason? Being a perfectionist is about proving yourself to others, proving your ability, perhaps even something done out of fear in attempt to avoid looking foolish. What does it take? Work ethic and a willingness to put in time, time to keep polishing until it can’t shine any brighter – pushing through despite diminishing returns. A noble effort indeed but not all that value adding… take math, you can run numbers by hand and go over your work until it’s ‘perfect’ or you could just let Excel do it for you.

Pursuing excellence on the otherhand is about doing something special, something different, something of unique value. In reality, excellence is rarely perfect but generally not something just anyone can do with enough time or effort – unless of course your special brand of excellence is being able to think on your feet and produce quality (not necessarily perfect) work quickly. Excellence is about not being perfect. It’s about choosing something you’re willing to let suffer so that something else can be special… it’s also about knowing when the returns of simply doing more work aren’t worth the effort.

There’s a place for perfection but true perfection is rarely what’s called for. The next time you’re pulling a late night or beating yourself up over something stop and ask yourself, “Am I pursuing excellence or am I merely being a perfectionist?”

The importance of unplugging

I’m wearing out the keyboard on my laptop, literally. It’s just over a year old and I’m missing the F7 key (really? F7) with many other’s ready to jump. Thing is, I have a Dell with a good keyboard. Point is, I’m on my laptop a lot. Like many my age, when I’m unwinding in front of the TV at night – I have my laptop.

With the amazing improvement of productivity and access to information comes an increased dependence on, or rather addiction to, consuming it. There’s also an increased ability to become a work a holic because you can be productive from wherever you are.

But now, I’m back in my hometown for my wife’s sister’s wedding. Access to the Internet is limited despite being just two hours to the Bay Area (my mom just got access to DSL 3 months ago) and 3G is sparse. So while I’m home I’m finding myself disconnecting, going outside, spending time without a screen in front of my face and I’m finding something interesting – perspective.

My generation, and most of the people in cities like Seattle who embrace technology to the fullest, get very caught up in the web and the information available “out there” and we lose sight (not site) of what’s important “right here.” Each morning we’ve been staying at my in laws who have a garden and I’ve gone out and eaten about a pound of berries for breakfast, I get to watch my son pick berries and strawberries enjoying each bite and getting red juice on his face (and clothes). We are creatures who are made to spend time out in the world, often with nothing to occupy our thoughts so we can let them wander, not just consumed in our own little worlds.

Getting a chance to unwind and dealing with getting over my withdrawals (from the reduction of information consumption) is helping me to spend some much needed time thinking about priorities, where I want to go, and who I want to be. It’s easy to choose a course, get on the road and never stop to check your direction because you’re too busy making good time but when you take a break to take stock of things it sure feels like a good investment.

Don’t mistake curiosity for a lack for understanding

It’s funny the assumptions we make. The more we interact with people the faster we get at lumping someone new into a bucket. We use heuristics to keep us from taking an interminably long time to come to decisions or form assessments of situations but when we apply them to people, particularly people that don’t fit the molds we’ve formed in our minds, a funny things happens – we get it entirely wrong.

I’m been on both sides of this quick judgment and in most cases the same issue is at play, mistaking curiosity for a lack of understanding. In our culture, bravado and a sickening desire to impress have created an environment where a person who seeks to learn from other’s experiences is often viewed as having a lack of understanding (the inverse is this situation occurs when someone understands something about the subject and then spends far too long trying to prove it to the ‘mentor’). Ironically, I’ve found, that most people who truly seek to understand something don’t stop pursuing truth once they grasp the concept rather they continue to turn over every rock they can to find new nuggets that enhance their mastery of the subject. On the flip side, when I meet people who purport mastery the extent of their expertise is usually limited to the exact situation for which they experienced or else its dated expertise that stopped being relevant once they believed they knew all that could be known about a subject.

So, I guess my takeaway is, if someone approaches you for mentorship and seeks expertise and insight take a moment to understand whether they are seeking a preliminary understanding of something or if they’re well versed on the topic and looking to add depth or breadth to their mastery of the subject. Getting past the initial assumption will help both of you get the most out of the conversation.

Doing what’s right without getting anything done

The last few weeks have been pretty crazy – and I haven’t posted for a while. I always have a lot going on but it’s been a crazy run up to Monday’s quasi-launch. We’re opening up our web application to our first customers, they’ve become complete advocates of what we’re doing but it’s still an anxious and exciting time knowing that we’re on the verge of our first revenue.

Between business school and our lean startup I do a lot more doing than managing at this point so when a day like yesterday happens it feels a little unusual. I had meetings and calls with an adviser, a couple ’employees,’ and a few smaller managerial tasks. Generally, I spend the majority of my day getting work done and checking things of the ever growing to-do list so Friday was definitely less productive based on my traditional measurement. Despite not getting much done it’s pretty exciting to see things being done without my direct intervention and isn’t that what managing is really about?

At this point our team is comprised of just a few people and other than myself and my co-founder everyone else is very part-time so I’ll be doing much of the work for a long time but it’s interesting to look ahead to the day when that changes. At some point we’ll reach an inflection point where my day is primarily comprised of not (directly) getting anything checked off the to-do list but for the time being ‘managing’ won’t be a big part of my job description.

I’m Definitely a Glass-Half-Full Kind of Guy

A great part of Business School are the case competitions. These are mock situations, often based on real-world business issues, that students create recommendations for and, if they win, they get real money. Foster is good at case competitions

Well, as part of our startup we’ve applied to a number of business plan competitions around the country including our Business Plan Competition, the BPC is organized by the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

On Friday as I finished writing the last post I received two e-mails I’d been waiting on, one from Wake Forest’s Elevator Pitch Competition and the other from the NWEN‘s First Look Forum (OK, so it’s not limited to students and you’re not explicitly competing for cash but it is a competition). As it turns out, we received the gracious thanks-but-no-thanks from Wake and we’ve advanced to the top-20 in the FLF.

I was bummed and frustrated reading the Wake e-mail, which I got it first, because (and surely I’m not biased) I think our plan and our exec sum is pretty well put together. Then I read the FLF e-mail and I got a shot of adrenaline which complimented the self-satisfaction I felt quite nicely. And now, as I’m thinking about both, it’s the advance in the FLF that fills most of my thoughts while the rejection has been relegated to the outer recesses of my thoughts and primarily revolve around, “that’s a shame, they missed a chance to bring a great startup out from the North West.”

I’m an optimist through and through but I’m particularly happy to be one when it comes to working on a startup. Is eternal optimism a required entrepreneurial trait? If so, is it learned or ingrained? If you’re interested you should read Mark Suster’s blog post from Saturday about being an entrepreneur to decide.

The attitude I’m seeking for my startup

Team, team, TEAM. No matter how you write it it’s a simple concept and really important to a startup. I knew when I started my little venture that I wanted to build a team that I could get excited about working with every day and it’s been an interesting ride. Suffice it to say I’m still spending a lot of effort on team building.

Capabilities are important, but not that important. People can always learn what they need to. What I’m really looking for is fit. A big part of B-school, especially at Foster, is developing leadership which includes understanding what type of leader you want to be. I want to be a leader that has the vision to know where we need to go and the humanity to build a work environment that makes people enjoy the journey. But like any leader I struggle to answer the question, how do you find and cultivate relationships with people that complement your style to create a company that is more than it’s sum?

If you’ve worked with me you know that I like to think about stuff. New stuff, new ways of doing old stuff, ways to make old stuff new again – you get where I’m going. It’s in playing out scenarios and talking through issues that I’m best able to process potential opportunities and set direction. In my experience, I’ve come to realize there are 3 types of people: the pessimist that’s already too busy or too set in their ways to get excited about something new, the yes-man (or woman) who thinks everything they hear is terrific, and the can-do person who pushes back to understand the issues at play and adds value to the evaluation process. One of the most important aspects of these can-do people is that they don’t just appreciate the idea but that they’re excited to tackle it – this is HUGE in a startup, especially one as lean as ours.

I’ve heard guest speakers in class talk about how they hire talent even if they don’t have an immediate role for them, I think my version will be “I hire can-do.”

If you want to get involved with a startup and you’re full of can-do I want to hire* you. (*Disclaimer, our startup is bootstrappy poor right now so we’re not looking to hire but we are looking to conduct 3-6 months “interviews” with the potential to earn what will likely be below-market wages doing awesome things with our firm at it’s conclusion.)