Monday, January 30, 2012

Sticks, String, Feet-n-Inches and Ideas

My father had a practical way of differentiating different types of people.  In my childish imagination, it came from the wisdom of Generals preparing for battle in World War I.  In my mature, adult worldview, I like to think it came for the wisdom of Generals in World War I.  Whatever it's source, I still find it's classifications beneficial in understanding how to work with different people.  It divides people into three groups:

  1. Sticks-n-String People
  2. Feet-n-Inches People
  3. Conceptual Idea People
The example which was always given had to do with digging trenches.  The concepts still holds.  In business whether you're digging trenches, making widgets, writing code or selling apples, there are still tasks which have to be done and people who have to be asked to do them.

Sticks-n-String People
If you want a sticks-n-string person to dig you a trench, you need to go to them and say: 

"I need trench that's as deep as this stick, as wide as this stick and as long as this piece of string and I need you to dig it right here.  I'll be back at 10:30 to see how it's going."

If you give a sticks-n-string person these types of instructions, they'll dig you a perfect trench.  If you leave much more ambiguity than that, they'll get confused, frustrated and you'll get delays and disappointment.  And it will be your fault, not the person you asked to dig the trench.  Know who you're dealing with, know what you have to provide them and provide it to them.

Feet-n-Inches People
If you want a feet-n-inches person to dig you a trench, they need the correct amount of direction, a little explanation about why they're digging the trench and they need to know how much freedom they have to solve problems.  A good approach with a feet-n-inches person is to say something like: 

"We need to protect the left flank.  Could you dig me a trench that'll hold 20 soldiers.  Make it 5 feet deep, 3 feet wide and 20 feet long.  Let me know when you're done."

Feet-n-inches people care about why they're doing something.  They like to have some context and purpose in what they do.  They also like a certain amount of freedom to go around rocks and such.  Finally, they like to have closure.  When something is finished, they like to know it's finished.  Feedback on how the trench looks will pay great dividends in the future.

Conceptual Idea People
Conceptual idea people think too much and often work too little.  Yes, they may have great ideas about how to dig better trenches and if you need to invent a trench, they are definitely the person to go to.  But if you want twenty trenches dug, these people are useless.  They'll spend more time arguing with you about whether trenches are necessary, if there aren't better ways and mostly whether someone else wouldn't be a better trench digger.

These people need a lot of freedom.  In certain situations, they'll create great work.  For innovating new approaches, they're fantastic.  If you need someone to scout out a new territoriality, find the best place to defend and dig a trench for forward troops to go to, they are great for this.  You're best approach working with a conceptual idea person is to say:

"Look, we need to take that valley.  Could you scout ahead, find the best location to build a base to advance from and then dig a trench for the 20 scout troupes to work from.  Go forth and report back to me by 02:00 Tuesday morning."

It is critical with conceptual idea people that they have a good amount of freedom, but also strict deadlines.  Give them too much freedom, and you'll never get anything done.  Be too precise and they'll argue with you or think it's below them.  For the right kind of problems, they are the best person to pick.

Knowing the different types of people, what they'll respond to is critical for getting what you're looking for.  In the end, a trench is a trench and to be successful, you need to get it dug.  Pick the right kind of person and give them the correct type of instructions.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Blindingly Obvious

The blindingly obvious is like a beautiful woman, impossible to describe but instantly recognizable when seen.  Think of your local school orchestra playing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.  They may get every note right, but compare their performance to the London Philharmonic.  The difference is blinding obvious.

The same is true in business.  There are two people.  One is executing a plan and the other is just floating along, they may do the same things, but the difference is blindingly obvious.

You don’t have to ask if someone is wealthy.  If you have to ask, they’re not.  The difference between wealth and middle class is blindingly obvious.  Look for the blindingly obvious in people with whom you work.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Is it Better to be Obscure or Visible?

Obscurity is your friend.  If you're working on something or figuring out how to make something work, you don't want people watching you.  Only after you've got it operating smoothly do you want spectators and critics.  Why do starlets say such stupid things?  They haven't worked out where they fit, where they have expertise and how people will respond to what they say.  Think about it with U2 as your example.

U2 is a rock band.  Their fans know what to expect from a song, album or concert and when U2 publishes something, they stay within the range of what their fan base expects.  They identified an area, developed expertise in it and cultivated a fan base that expects certain things from them.

Ok, what if U2 wrote a symphony?  They may well love classical music.  Maybe they go to the symphony regularly, but that's not the vein of expertise they've cultivated.  If they put out a symphony, it would alienate their fan base and the fans of symphonies probably wouldn't take them seriously.

Wisely, they developed expertise in the area of rock-n-roll when they were obscure, cultivated a fan base that enjoyed what they produced and created a nice career for themselves doing that.  It was really their work while they were obscure that gave them the opportunity.

Obscurity is your opportunity to develop something great, don't try and draw attention to yourself until you're really ready.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

An Idea about Improving Meetings with Busy Executives

One of the things I’ve learned, is that when you’re meeting with a busy executive, don’t mix issues.  If you are talking to them about “A”, don’t mix “B” into the conversation.  You might see them as related and influencing each other, but from their perspective, this meeting is about “A”.  Hopefully they prepared for or thought about “A”, but bringing up “B” comes as a surprise to them.  At best, they’re caught off guard, more likely, they don’t see any connection between “A” and “B”.  They thought you were working on “A”.  Alluding to “B” confuses the issue.

When talking with co-workers, who focus on and think about these work items regularly and see the interactions between A and B, mixing the two makes sense, in fact, that is how you move things forward.  Remember, a co-worker spends all day thinking about these issues, a busy executive has maybe 15 minutes in a week.

Ideally, create an agenda and clearly state topics to be discussed.  If they need background material, it should be less than a paragraph and included in the email.  If they choose to jump between topics, that’s their choice.  As an executive, they have the option to drive the bus.  As someone working for an exec, if you control the agenda, to the greatest degree possible, you structure the meeting.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ambiguity vs Definition

There’s an interesting conflict with people.  They hate being told what to do, but they also loath ambiguity.  If they are in a controlled environment or the goal is clear, they will do what needs to be done.  However, when they are in an uncertain situation and the outcome is unknown, people err on the side of caution, or better yet, do what someone tells them to do.

When people take vacations, do they go places where they have to figure out the culture, find what to do, experiment with new foods, operate in countries where they don’t speak the language?  No, they go to Disneyland or Cancun or their mothers house.  Places where they know what will happen, how they are expected to act, what the outcomes will be.  Safe, warm, beautiful places.  Go to a place like Colombia or Myanmar or somewhere that might have wonderful adventures, but they are not clearly defined.  They are  places where you have to research, then get a read of what’s happening on the ground to determine what to do.  They are ambiguous, so you  have to cultivate local contacts to discover what’s interesting and worthwhile.

One place has definition and the other has ambiguity.  Which do you choose?  Why?

Do you prefer defined vacations where you know what will happen or do you prefer ambiguity? 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

US Top 1% Versus World Top 1%

It's rarely mentioned how wealthy the US is.  We like to think we're similar to everyone else, but that ignores some numeric realities.  For example, the reality of what being in the top 1% means.

To be in the top 1% in the US, in 2011, you needed to earn $368,238.

However, to be in the top 1% in the world, in 2011 you needed to earn $34,000 after taxes. That's about $50,000, (not counting benefits)

The point being that about 50% of the people in the top 1% in the world live in the US.  If we make the numbers a little more specific, there are about 60 million people in the world in the top 1%.  About 29 million of those people live in the US.

What this points up is where the middle class really lives (Hint, it's definitely in the US).  As globalization and technology change the global playing field, the middle class in the US will almost certainly decline.  Everyone cannot be in the top 1%.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Corinthian Leather Claims

I've started dealing with vendors again and I'm suddenly hearing a lot of Corinthian leather statements.  They don't say "Corinthian leather", they hype some feature of their product all out of proportion to it's benefit.

Corinthian leather doesn't exist.  The phrase was made up by the advertising agency Bozell to differentiate Chrysler's Cordoba.  It suggests a link between Corinth and the car's upholstery, however there is no link. It just sounds great, especially when Ricardo Montalban says it.  It sounded so rich and luxurious, it was a reason to buy the Cordoba.  However meaningless it might have been.

Vendors don't realize the risk they take with Corinthian leather claims.  If I know that Corinthian leather doesn't exist, what does it say about your product?

When was the last time you bought a Cordoba?