Interlude

Black Friday arrived gray and rainy on Long Island this morning.

The plop, plop sounds on the skylights provide percussive accompanyment to the crackling fire and quiet new age flute music I have playing softly in the background as I sit in a large, comfortable leather chair and read (Richardson's biography of William James).

Green tea, served from a freshly acquired pot of Japanese design, completes this morning's comforts.

Soon the family will be fully up and abuzz, but now is my time.

Great Companies, Great Products

Great companies make great products.

They also must do many other things well in order to succeed in the long term, but at the core of it, they make great products (be they hardware, software or service).

So what are the hallmarks of great products, those that reach beyond utility to some higher plane? And how do some companies regularly produce them and prosper, and others issue forth a steady stream of mediocre (or worse) products and business results.

A few thoughts follow…

I believe that it starts with a deep belief in the basic truth asserted above. Your culture has to feature your products in starring roles.

Overview_hero1_20091020 I bought my first Apple product shortly after watching a video documentary made from "In Search of Excellence." I listened to Steve Jobs for the first time, heard him declare their goal of making nothing short of "insanely great" products, and they've consumed an embarrassingly large percentage of my disposal income ever since. Driven by Jobs, Apple is built from its foundation on the deep belief in, and commitment to, great products.

Symbol too. Jerry Swartz drove us to it, from a million angles (usually all at once). Ray Martino often said that great products were ALL that mattered. Fred Heiman had about the best product sense of anyone I know. Our engineers and product management teams presented their proposals and finished works with pride more typically reserved for offspring.

OK, so it starts with focus, belief and commitment. Then what?

Great products have to be designed from the outside in, the inside out and with coherence and integrity.

In turn:

Great products create great user experiences. They don't achieve excellence in some abstract framework, but as judged by the impressions of their human owners. This in turn is accomplished by thinking deeply about the total user experience from the earliest stages of design through to its finishing details of fit, finish, line and even grace. It's not just about what the product is, but how its design creates the desired impressions. They don't just meet a need, they create excitement and a sense of possibility.That's outside in design.

Inside out is equally important. Great products are built around solid cores that ensure quality, cost effectiveness, scalability.

Apple Macs are what they are in large measure because OSX is a great operating system.

Symbol bar code scanners still lead the industry all these years later because the theoretical foundation of M2000 their design was built solid and deep. Small example from the early years: a math model Jerry and collaborators developed proved that much less expensive components and simpler alignment methods could be used, as compared to competitive designs, and would yield a scanner that would actually work better than one built with conventional approaches. More for less wins.

Inside out design is about investing to understand the theoretical underpinnings of product design better that your competition, and then using that knowledge to get your core foundations right.

Finally, great product designs are coherent expressions of the strategies and values of the companies that make them. You should be able to pick up a product and read a story in it. It's company's story. What it stands for. Where it's going. What it means to enter a relationship with that company by becoming a user of its products.

That only happens if there's integrity in the design of individual products, and continuity across families of products, aligned deeply with the essence of the company that designed them.

Porsche911turbo26210245kq Drive a Porsche, walk into a dealer, read an ad, see their products on a track… and the impressions form an entirely coherent whole that says, "Performance."

Want to be a great company? Commit to, invest in, and deliver great products, and you'll be on your way.

Know Which Game To Play

Checkers and chess. Both are games of skill. Both have winners and losers.

While they share the same playing surface, if you sit down with a friend to play, it’s entirely clear which set of rules you should be using, based on the pieces on the board.

In business, it’s not that simple.

It’s Monday morning and you sit down at your desk.

Checkers Should this week’s focus be on steps toward securing the partnership that could be the key to opening up that new market segment that’s so promising (“chess”), or on how to fill the open slot on the development team who’s work is slipping (“checkers”)?

In some idealized textbook world, both happen in parallel: You as leader focus on the “big picture” strategic issues, your team on the executional tactics.

Not in the real world.

Here, what you focus on matters. It sets the priority. Your team notices, and that’s where they focus. (That's even before you get to the issue of your incremental experience and ability to contribute to the best outcome.)

If you meet with the hiring manager and her HR partner to discuss the open slot, their efforts to fill itChess  take on a different level of urgency. If you meet with the candidates, you’re more likely to land the top prospect.

Conversely, if you leave the job of laying out the critical strategic partnership framework with your Director of Business Development, the deal is less likely to come together than if you are a hands-on participant in the process.

Substitute any set of “checkers” and “chess” issues, and the challenge as to where to focus is the same:

  • The design review, or the new product strategy meeting?
  • The customer visit, or the next generation go-to-market innovation council presentation?
  • The current parts shortage or the long term cost reduction initiative?
  • The compensation plan or alternatives for opening up South America?

Just as in the case of whether to view a glass as half empty or full, and of through which end of the telescope to look, there is no one right answer.

As a team, you need to win at both strategy and tactics, chess and checkers. Which means that as a leader, of a team large or small, you have to lead in both.

My purpose here is to get you to think about that. To think how you’re balancing your time. To realize that you don’t win big in the long term without a well conceived strategy — but that you never even get to the long term without excellence in execution.

Chances are, you’re naturally drawn to one game more than the other. Me, I’m a bit more of a chess guy. I know plenty of more natural (and skilled) checkers players. That’s why, a couple of years ago, one early morning in a Starbucks, before my first cup of coffee, I bought a small, brass-covered magnetic travel game of checkers. It’s sitting on my desk to this day, to remind me to make sure to think about playing checkers each and every day, with at least as much effort as playing chess.

Think about it.

Oh, and yes, also know when it's time to stop playing, and time to sit down with your wife for a glass of wine… which it is here, and now.

Why I Do This

So why, exactly, have I chosen to take to the task of recording words here, now on some regular basis? Related: what guides my choice of subject?

A few words on these questions follow.

While having had some experience in a like mode some years earlier, I only started this column in August of this year. It was a time of transition, and I guess that instinctively I felt that thinking some things through out loud, in public, would help me toward choosing my own path forward. I wrote about this in “Looking Back to Look Forward,” one of my earlier posts. I’ve found that it’s served me well in this respect.

I also, it turns out, like to write — I forgot just how much until taking up this project. Don’t get me wrong, this is work, sometimes painful. Writing, like any other skill, improves with practice. That of course directly implies that you have to subject yourself (and, alas your readers) with earlier inferior works, on the way toward those improved ones that your later self will hopefully one day produce.

In addition, I believe, humbly but with no false modesty, that I have some insights (mostly about the world of business) to share. I’ve lived and experienced quite a bit. I've been part of something great, and made plenty of mistakes. I have been very pleased to hear back in comments, a few public and quite a few more private, that at least some of your are finding at least some of my notes useful. I will strive to continue to earn your attention with offered value.

Finally, as one dear friend surmised in a private comment, I’ve found writing about some of the more difficult moments in my career to be genuinely cathartic. The process seems to bring that overused pop psychology word: closure.

Now, what about my choice of subject?

I didn’t really have a plan when I started this. A serial reading of posts from August should make this plain.

I’ve written about business, travel, politics, people, science and sports. (I’ve likely forgotten a topic or two.)

I’ve tried to be as honest and true to my feelings as my capacities allow. Where I’ve found myself editing out potentially relevant details, it’s been where I feared that they might bring unease or disadvantage to others.

I’ve not shied away from opinion, but of the gentle variety and have avoided turning this into a platform for polemics. (Way too much of that in the world today, and it’s not my nature anyway.)

I’ve written quite a bit about my past, but always with the intent that it illuminate the future, starting with the present moment. (I came across the Emerson quote in the banner above just this morning. I liked it enough, with exactly this thought in mind, to put it in place of the earlier one from Twain1.)

Now, three months into this project, it seemed appropriate to step back and ask myself if a different, more focused plan for guiding choice of content in the future is in order.

I’ve decided not, at least for the next lap or two. If this column is not an effective reflection of me, all of me, then why put it out in the first place? I’m a guy with pretty wide, varied and eclectic tastes, interests and (happily) life experiences, past and (hopefully) future. This column will continue to reflect that, for better or worse. I hope that you continue to enjoy it. Thank you for your kind readership,

Richard Bravman

1. That earlier quote read, "A man's private thought can never be a lie; what he thinks, is to him the truth, always."

Love Your Channel, But Don’t Let Them Crowd You Out Of Customer Dialogue

Love your channel. Feed your channel. Help them get rich. But don’t let them block you from having a regular and robust dialogue with your end use customers.

A very significant percentage of B2B commerce is conducted through third party channels: Distributors, VARs, SIs and OEMs. A well developed channel ecosystem, properly supported and managed should, over time, become a major asset and differentiator for its manufacturer principal. Often the company with the strongest channel wins.

Strong partners also wield considerable clout however. They, almost by definition, have naturally closer relationships with end users than do their principals. They will often seek to build on and then leverage this control over the customer to their advantage. Up to a point, you should be OK with this: you want your channel to have great relationships with your shared customers.

But you make a serious mistake if you allow your channel to be your only connection to your customers. If this happens, whether by lack of focus on your part or by allowing your partners to elbow you aside, you lose.

  • You lose the ability to deliver your story, your positioning and other key messages, clearly, accurately and with maximum impact.
  • You lose the ability to establish credibility and authority with your customers as a thought leader capable of articulating a vision for how the forward trajectory of your business can help theirs.
  • You lose the ability to engage your customers in your innovation process. (I wrote about this here.)
  • You lose the opportunity to hear, directly and unfiltered, the “voice of the customer” — what they think about you, what’s working, and what needs improvement.
  • You lose the ability to establish human relationships with the very people will determine your future success or failure.

All together too much to lose.

Thoughts of this came to mind recently in a discussion with another tech CEO. He was explaining the current problems he and his team were tackling. They sounded like they were related to the sort of “losses” I listed above.

I asked, “How often do you, personally, meet with your top end user customers?” His hesitation alone told the story, but he went on to answer, “hardly ever… our (SI) channel is very powerful, they pretty much keep us out. Further, we’re only a relatively small part of the solution that our customers’ actually buy.”

I pointed out the perspective shared above, and suggested that, even in cases such as his where your products comprise only a fraction of the total solution, it is possible to create and sustain a meaningful dialogue with your end customers.

I suggested a few specific ideas:

  • Develop a narrative that is centered on exactly how the distinctive characteristics of your products have impact on his business, expressed in his terms.
  • Expand that narrative by developing and articulating a vision as to how your future products will enable your customer to create strategic advantage in coming years.
  • Aim high: find out what your customer’s CEO cares about and is working on. (A visit to their web site, and some time on Google should make this pretty straightforward.) Make sure your narratives link to these C-level issues.
  • Then, as CEO of your company, reach out the theirs, and suggest the benefits of a one hour meeting to share ideas about his goals can be furthered by what you’re enabling today, and tomorrow. If you’re small and the customer’s large, you may get pushed down a level or two. That’s OK. With the CEO’s blessing, a meeting with middle management can be very effective. But try to secure participation by the most senior business owners possible.
  • Suggest that such meetings should be held no less frequently than annually, given your pace of innovation and other dynamics in the business.
  • Finally, involve your channel partner in the meetings, so that they don’t feel cut out, and you present a coherent and aligned message.

I know from personal experience over many years that these approaches work. Try them, you'll see.

Now and Then

CASUAL, IN THE NY'R STYLE

I’m teaching myself ActionScript, a programming language used with Adobe Flash. Unless I flunk myself, the reason will appear in a post not too far into the future.

ActionScript is an object-oriented language.

OK, I know that I just ran the risk of losing 90% of you. Trust me, there’s a funny story to follow…

The term “Object Oriented” today refers to a concept in computer science where a programming language is structured so that building block “routines” written in it have very well defined and tall “walls.” For example, if you write a part of your program to, say, draw a rectangle on the screen, all the other parts of the program interact with the Rectangle Routine in very well specified ways. They don’t get to muck around with Rectangle Routine’s internal bits. They can only tell it where on the screen to draw it, it’s dimensions, color, and that’s it. Each routine is like a little castle; what goes on inside is its business.

Well, while Object Oriented Programming was around when I was working toward my computer science degree from SUNY Stony Brook. We learned about it as a theory, but I never used it. It’s application in common practice lay a dozen or so years into the future. (It took hold in the 90’s.)

But, at the significant further risk of terminally dating myself, allow me to explain that there were objects that were very much involved in my programming, back in the day.

Punchcards.018 They were called punch cards. One’s pictured right over there on the left. Real time access to a computer was a platinum-precious resource in those days. The way you typically interacted with one was to write out a program’s set of instructions, sit down at a console like the one over there on the right (that’s not me), and type out a punch4506VV4002  card for each and every line of code in your program (the more complex the program, the more cards), and then take your “stack” of cards to someone who would feed them into a machine that would present them to the computer for processing. A few hour later, you’d get a printout (on “Green Bar” paper). If something didn’t work, you’d have to figure out what was wrong, fix your program, go back and type out the new cards, insert them in the right places in your deck (their order was as important and their individual contents), and hand it over to run again. Another three hours later, you’d find out if you’d fixed the problem.

Well, as you might imagine, this was pretty tedious stuff. Especially with very large, complex programs.

I labored through much of the fall and into winter of 1977 on one such large program, a Senior Project, with success in it a requirement for graduation. The program grew large, there were many, many retries to get it just right, and my stack grew larger and larger.

By the time I finally got it all right, on a particularly cold December afternoon, my stack of cards measured somewhere around eight inches tall.

When I looked down at the Green Bar printout, and all, excepting some minor formatting issue, was as it should be, I did some 70’s version of a Tiger fist pump, and rushed out of the building to drive home.

Mazfest04_mazdarx3 Finding my Mazda RX-3 in the parking lot, I tried to open the door. No luck — dead frozen. Fortunately, this was a known problem, and I had a can of spray de-icer at hand. I put the card deck and printout on the roof, and set about gaining entry to my car.

It took awhile, maybe 10 minutes. I was freezing and it was getting toward dusk. When my key finally turned turned in the lock, I jumped into the driver’s seat, flipped the ignition and cranked up the heat.

A few minutes later, I had warmed up enough to drive. I reversed out of the parking spot, turned toward the exit, and gunned it…

…only to see each and every one of my stack of cards fluttering behind, like their accompanying snow flakes, in the rear view mirror.

Never slowed down, even a little. When you screw up, you gotta move on.

The next day, I sat for God-knows-how-many hours, retyping each and every one of those objects. I passed the course.

What does WiFi have in common with Whale Sharks?

I was asked to say a few words at Fred’s retirement party. Without more than a moment’s thought, I knew just how to approach the task.

So, when I got up in front of a packed room a few weeks later, I began with the quote that had immediately sprung to mind earlier…

NewFred1 “All progress depends on unreasonable men,” I said, paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw. “Fred Heiman is one of those men. When I plan a vacation, thoughts run immediately to poolside Margarita’s in Maui. That’s reasonable. Fred? He heads straight to the western shores of Australia to scuba dive with giant whale sharks. Not so reasonable.” That reference was apt both with respect to Fred’s then growing (now full fledged) passion for underwater exploration and videography (see his web site), and the evening’s venue: the Monterey Aquarium.

But it was also an apt quote to describe Fred’s accomplishments and nature.

Fred could drive you crazy. Opinions? Fred’s got em. Compromise? Not in his vocabulary. Gray area, perhaps? Nope, that’s 100% white. I mean to tell you, the man is totally unreasonable.

But he’s also the reason Symbol Technologies entered and emerged as a leader in wireless networking142550-Motorola-8500XL_thumb and related enterprise mobility products. Fred saw that the world was going wireless earlier than just about anyone else I know. I can still picture the slide he presented to that effect at a product strategy meeting sometime around 1988. (Remember, this is what a cell phone looked like that year, and that it cost $4382 in inflation-adjusted dollars.) His was not an obvious or reasonable position to assert.

Also not reasonable: to base our design on an RF technology previously only used by the military (spread spectrum), and to propose that the project be tackled by an engineering team that largely didn’t yet exist, and had no prior experience in wireless product development. But that’s just what Fred insisted we do.

Well, the wireless and mobility technology we developed became the basis for what is now a billion dollar plus business within Motorola (who acquired Symbol), and our ideas are woven deeply into what we all now know as WiFi (we were one of six companies who drove the first round standardization efforts behind the now ubiquitous wireless LAN technology).

Fred has a habit of doing things like that. Earlier in his career, he was one of the principal inventors of the MOSFET IC, one of the key founding innovations that has led to our digital world.

I tell this story not just to tip my hat (again) to Fred, but to remind us all that we had better do our best to attract and keep around “unreasonable” men and women. They’re the ones that don’t recognize and accept present conventions and realities, they invent new ones. Yes, they can drive you crazy, but they are your future. Look around your team. See any? If not, better find a couple.

Things We Can Choose…

None of us are, or can be perfect. That’s something that’s reserved for [ ] (fill in the blank with you personal meta).

But all of us can be authentic, transparent, courageous and can act with integrity. 

Those qualities lie at the very base of what it takes to earn the right to lead. If you find yourself unable to deliver them consistently, you should step aside. If you don’t, wait awhile, you’ll be found out and one day you’ll look around and no one will be following you.

We cannot decide to have the genius product sense of Steve Jobs. But all of us can decide to be authentic.

Allow me to suggest a small experiment. Find the nearest mirror, walk over and ask yourself, “Who’s that?” Now, whatever the answer is, follow up with, “Is that who I am when I’m with others? Really? Those imperfections over there — the ones I can’t shake — can I let them show in public? Those unpolished bits too — the ones that distinguish me from some edited version of ‘me’ — how do I feel about those?” If your answer tends toward, “Yup, I’m not ideal, but I’m not bad, and generally speaking, I am who I am with all comers,” you’re on the right track toward authenticity.

None of us can choose to have the genius at capital allocation possessed by Warren Buffett, but we can choose to be transparent.

Are you willing to allow others access to more than just some managed subset of information about what you’re doing? If you’re going to presume to get out in front of the pack and be the lead dog — you’d better. While I think that, even in this age of Twitter, people still have respect for the concept of privacy, I know that expectations have changed, especially as applied to leaders. Fail to afford a view of not just what you’ve decided but how, why and what alternatives you’ve considered along the way, and you’ll not win the strength of support you need to be effective. Our times are just too cynical. You be the one that provides information on what’s not working so well in your business, rather than some investigative reporter, and that information is received and analyzed in an entirely more benign light.

Perhaps none of us can flip a switch and decide to have the inventive genius of Thomas Edison, but all of us can decide to act with courage.

In my experience, including with respect to my own personal actions, I’ve seen that many, perhaps most, poor decisions are caused by the failure to summon up the courage to do the right thing, take a risk or expose oneself to ridicule. Weakness and timidity debilitate and feed on themselves. You lose confidence in yourself and others lose faith in your leadership. Conversely, conspicuous acts of courage embolden you and energize your team. (Oh, and it’s not that hard. The negative consequences of a courageous act are never as bad as feared, if they materialize at all.)

We might not be born with the native genius of Richard Feynman, but we all can choose to be honest and true to ourselves, always. Tactics can and should be adjusted situationally, core principles not. If you are seen not as one person, reliably consistent in character, but rather as an illusive actor, shifting about for gain or convenience what should be bedrock principles, you’ll be seen as lacking integrity, and others will flee, not follow. Unless you’re afflicted with a deep personality disorder, you ARE one person. You stand for one set of things. Make sure your acts and utterances reflect that integrity, and your team will trust you. That investment of trust is what makes leadership possible.