Archive for January, 2011

The little things

I’ve never been a big TV watcher, and for the past decade my two shows have been Lost and The Amazing Race. If you’re gonna choose two, then those are it, right?

Now Lost is gone forever (though I hold onto an ounce of hope) and the Amazing Race is in-between seasons…so I’ve got nothing. While out to dinner with a friend at this great sushi spot in San Francisco, she told me about a show she’s been watching for years: How I Met Your Mother. She let me borrow the first two seasons on DVD, and I was hooked. Netflix has brought me the rest of the way, and it’s been worth every minute.

Double Date

In the Season 5 episode “Double Date,” Ted, the main character, describes a time when he unknowingly went on the same blind date with the same woman (Jen) twice…7 years apart. When they discover what has happened, he and Jen decide to make the most of it. Walking through their first date, they tell each other what the other did to turn them off: Ted corrected a spelling error in the menu, Jen talked about her cats, Ted didn’t offer his coat when it was cold, Jen didn’t play the “who’s gonna pay the bill” dance, and so on. This causes Ted to ask, “could simple changes have catalyzed a series of events that would have changed our fate, maybe leading to marriage?” (Ted is obsessed with finding Ms. Right). This is a similar vein to the movie Sliding Doors, and it got me thinking that small behavioral changes really can make a big difference.

In business, it can equal not getting VC funding, losing budget approval for an internal project, or even not getting that job. The trick is understanding what personal changes you can make. For me, when I believe in something, I get pretty passionate. This is especially true when I’ve analyzed all the facts, and have had time to think through all the angles. At that point, I’m locked and loaded and you’re not changing my opinion. Well, apparently this has its downsides…

In late 2009 my team was working on the pricing strategy for a new product launch. The meeting with the relevant directors and VPs was set to decide on the final strategy. I came in knowing the right answer. I had the schedule, messaging, and numbers all worked out in my head, and had a great deck to back me up. I walked in confidently and laid out my opinion…which apparently came across less like opinion and more like fact. There were some ideological differences in the room, and my approach set off a tsunami of dissenting points of view. It quickly became 5 on 1, which I didn’t expect, and I knew that I’d caused it. Having my ducks in a row was great, but strolling in and immediately throwing those ducks at everyone didn’t go over so well. Needless to say, I lost.

After leaving the room I reflected. Was this a one time thing for me, or a common occurrence? I realized that I did this all of the time. I’ve always been good at debating “on the fly,” but I never realized that this was due to the fact that when I prepare I attack my audience! In some cases, this can turn out OK. Depends on the crowd. In this case it wasn’t good, and I’ve since changed this behavior. Know yourself, and know your audience. It’ll go a long way.

For more info, Mark Suster has a great post on presenting to different audiences here.

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January 12, 2011 at 11:25 am 31 comments

A move from Microsoft’s playbook?

Microsoft’s historic success has come due to many reasons: great CEO in Bill Gates, superior execution, clarity of vision, and financial discipline among others. However, I believe that Netflix is using a different Microsoft play with its recent deals to have remote controls come with a Netflix button.

Netflix remote

As DOS, then Windows, was gaining traction as the winner in the OS market, Microsoft built its software to work on top of Intel’s chip set. Intel’s microprocessor began its industry-leading charge in the mid-1980s and Microsoft rode right along, a partnership that has lasted for 25 years (until recently?). The Netflix move is different, but similar – integrate yourself into/on top of another growing product…in short, piggybacking.

I can see Netflix’ benefits from these deals. Every consumer that uses one of these remotes will have a constant Netflix advertisement staring at them, and it’s name will become (even) more synonymous with internet movie streaming. But what are the electronics companies gaining? Sure consumers will find the button easier, but it’s not like it will be a differentiator – any company that makes an internet connected TV or device will have one. So aside from upfront costs (and the potential for future switching costs) I’m not sure I see it from there side. Why the move?

January 11, 2011 at 3:13 pm 1 comment

Simplicity, and knowing what to do

Throughout my life I’ve had the privilege (and sometimes misfortune) of being the confidant/adviser for a number of people from many backgrounds, and in a variety of situations. Lucky for me, many of these same people are happy to be there in return.

A statement that comes up 9 out of 10 times during discussions is “OK, that’s the story, and I don’t know what to do.” The truth is that I can’t think of a time when the person explaining the situation to me didn’t give me the answer themselves at some point during the story. Often the issue isn’t around knowing “what to do” but rather “how to do it”…or, better yet, how to do it without hurting someone’s feelings, leaving one’s comfort zone, or releasing one’s position with “pride” intact. This has held consistently whether the conversation was about a serious relationship, family, or even hitting on the girl next door.

confused monkey
Photo courtesy of Michael Keen Some rights reserved

I’ve seen similar situations like this pop up in business many times. About three or four years ago, when I was at McKinsey & Company, I was leading a 6-month long high profile, public facing project that required participation from more than 100 partners and directors across the organization. Getting this many people (including the financial and industry experts involved) herded and heading in the right direction is always a complicated effort; however, for the most part, we had the necessary frameworks, models and outlines in place for the process to go as smoothly as possible.

However, there was one, not so tiny, hitch. You see, the core work of the project was the financial valuation of over 300 privately held organizations, 60% of which had been McKinsey clients, or at least had some affiliation with McKinsey. Since the results would be public knowledge, published in a major global periodical, there was understandable unease from certain partners. For those that don’t know, McKinsey is, for good reason, very protective of client information. And while we, of course, respected and protected all necessary firewalls to ensure that the only data we would be releasing would not be client-sensitive, the fear of negative client reaction remained.

At the time, I fought for “academic integrity” and “clean data” with no compromises. This was my background and what I thought was right, no questions asked. However, this approach put me quite at odds with some powerful voices (….and fists…) at the firm. Not a good position to be in…trust me.

About 6 weeks before deadline I came to a crossroads. I didn’t know what to do. Keep standing my ground? Or “give in” to the pressure of leaving out certain organizations due to potential poor client perception…thus “compromising the integrity” of the whole project. If I didn’t uphold the quality of the data, I believed that it would hurt the credibility of the firm, as well as reflect poorly upon my own abilities. On the other hand, I had a political onslaught from some big names to deal with. Neither of these touched the real issue, but I still went back and forth and complicated the crap out of the choice.

In the end, I chose to fight. The wrong choice. About five days before deadline the whole thing was scrapped. This decision came down to one director whom I’d never met but still managed to spend quite some time on my black list (for what that was worth…pretty much nothing) because I felt like all my work was thrown in the trash. I now understand that the director made the right choice. While I can still understand my position, what I missed at the time was that the choice was simple. Line 1 of McKinsey’s Values is “Put the client’s interest ahead of our own.” Bottom line: dropping the fight was in our client’s best interest. This is the benefit of having a strong value structure – this works both professionally and personally.

Humans naturally complicate everything that we touch. Stepping out of the weeds of a decision can often make knowing “what to do” very clear, whether in the workplace or in that current bad relationship that all of our friends (and ourselves when we’re honest) know that we’re in.

January 10, 2011 at 4:09 pm 1 comment

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About Me

I'm a San Francisco-based strategic thinker who believes that life is only as great as the people you choose to interact with. I love people, and studying business has given me greater insight into how to most effectively develop myself, and my personal relationships. I look forward to discussing people and business with those that find this area as fascinating as I do.

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