Big Sur Road Trip

It was a great day for a top-down photo road trip to Big Sur. (It's amazing how much you can pack into a day when you're up at 3:15…)

Ellie and I visited CA for the first time in 1978, for our honeymoon, and fell in love with this stretch of coastline. Play the "Point Sur" mood music (Credit: Martin Headman Trio) and take a look at the gallery, fresh with today's views, and I'm pretty sure you'll see why.

Point Sur

Finding Your Next ‘Eureka’ Moment – WSJ.com

Want to invent the next iPod? Then don't try too hard. We may be able to train our minds to be better at generating ideas, according to recent thinking on how we think, and often the best way to foster a brilliant idea is not to push it.

Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman used to visit a topless bar, sip a soda and scribble quantum mechanics on a napkin. Einstein's theory of special relativity came after he imagined himself a child riding on a beam of light.

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And Greg Swartz, director of innovation at the golf company Ping, says he has come up with 36 ideas for better tees and loftier drives by looking at the stars. After immersing himself in his subject matter, he'll go to his backyard at night and let his mind settle into what he calls a "hyper state" when it is firing on all cylinders. He says it's as if he can almost feel the rush of gamma rays that are said to emanate from the right hemisphere when an idea is born.

Brain scans have revealed that when you think you're not thinking, your unconscious mind may be doing wind sprints searching for a perfect solution. As a result, answers sometimes seem to appear out of nowhere. In reality, that "nowhere" is beneath your consciousness. In studies, these out-of-the-blue insights are more frequently associated with novel, creative solutions than those derived from concentrating hard, according to cognitive neuroscientist Mark Jung-Beeman, of Northwestern University.

via online.wsj.com

I agree with this insight entirely. The mind is complex, and its workings are not intuitively revealed through simple introspection. According to at least one credible theory, our conscious thoughts are post-facto "explanations" that our left, verbal, brain invents so as to provide a rational narrative explaining what our left, creative / emotion-driven brain, has already decided to do or worked out as a solution to a problem within an entirely different cognitive framework.

I'm reading Edward Tufte's "Beautiful Evidence" at the moment. It's rich with content and possible application that initiates multiple threads of thought. I find myself pausing, literally putting the book down every page or two, just to allow those thoughts time and space to percolate. Only a small fraction of them have bubbled up to the surface of conscious awareness. Many others are down there, brewing, likely to pop up when I least expect them.

Want to bring your best, yet-to-surface thoughts up to where they can do some good? Here are some ideas I've found to work:

  1. Change of venue: Get up, get out, put yourself in a different setting. Listening to the Dead's Truckin' right now, I'm reminded of the time in my senior year at SUNY Stony Brook when, after a whole day and evening struggling to debug the compiler I had designed, I said, "That's it" (or something to that effect), got up, walked across campus to James Pub, and ordered a pitcher. Truckin' Sample

    Sometime later, somewhere in the middle of the third serial playing of Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), loud, the solution to my problem popped up, out of nowhere. I was thinking about the young lady across the room, not software.

  2. Draw it out: I often use mind mapping software to sketch out my ideas. By doing so, I'm sure that my left brain gets engaged in ways it wouldn't if I only used words (although outlining also works well for me in the case of problems where the broad idea is already at hand). I like MindManager.
  3. Collaborate: Sometimes your best thinking is done alone, but often the creative interplay that happens when you brainstorm with others brings out ideas that otherwise would not emerge.

Yankees 2009 Season

Yankees-2009

 A simple, well-designed graphic can carry a lot of information in a little bit of space. Built this morning in Excel, with inspiration from Edward Tufte's "Beautiful Evidence", which I'm reading now.

Bank of America Hits Pay Snag in CEO Hunt – WSJ.com


William Demchak, senior vice chairman at
PNC Financial Services Group Inc., spurned a feeler last week from a recruiter for the Charlotte, N.C., bank, according to a person familiar with the situation. Mr. Feinberg's required approval of the compensation package for whomever succeeds Kenneth D. Lewis was a major factor in the decision, this person said. Mr. Demchak also didn't see the bank's situation as fixable given the government's heavy influence over the company…

…Mr. Feinberg's role as overseer of seven companies that received huge government aid gives him enormous influence in the succession process at Bank of America. Once directors make a decision and negotiate contract terms with their chosen CEO, the compensation package must be submitted to Mr. Feinberg for approval.

Mr. Feinberg declined to comment.

via online.wsj.com

Yes, the design of incentive plans across the financial services industry clearly played a significant role in shaping behaviors that led to our recent financial collapse. Yes, responsible parties should focus on how these plans are constructed, so as to align incentives with intended outcomes for the enterprise.

But no, it is not a good idea for compensation to be controlled by a czar of the federal government.

The appropriate responsible parties should be found in the Board of Directors, who in turn should be accountable to shareholders to ensure that compensation systems are constructed wisely and with maximum transparency. 

In circumstances where the Government has provided extraordinary assistance, it should have rights equivalent to those of a major shareholder (whether or not it is in literal fact). The board must be able to justify its and management's decisions regarding compensation (among other matters as or more important). If it cannot do so, the remedy is its removal.

Compensation, with its politically charged links to populist anger, has taken way too prominent a place in our discussion of causes and remedies to the crisis. The very idea of a pay czar is a bad one on the face of it. Should we also appoint czars for the dozens of other categories of decisions that businesses must make everyday? How about one for responding to disruptive new technologies? They can kill companies. How about one for pricing? That worked well in the 70's. How about one for setting production levels. Too much or too little inventory can kill a company. There's a name for that I think…


Saturday Morning Musings…

Saturday morning turning afternoon, Carmel Valley. I’m working on “Create Something” alternatives, against the possibility that none of the several “Run Something” opportunities I’m now pursuing mature into a good fit.

The old saw about necessity and invention is prominent in my thinking. I have the former in abundance. I’m trying to summon up the later.

In an earlier post, I commented on how the boundary area between the realms of atoms and bits is an interesting place to do business. I still very much believe that. But I also see opportunity all across the flow of digital content, by adding value as bits are captured, stored, shared, aggregated, transformed, searched, output and acted upon. I’m thinking about those in particular that are software centric (and therefor likely the basis for a business that’s not too capital-intensive) and enhance the value of data streams through re-combination and presentation in new contextual frameworks designed to provide new insights.

The developments of the past decade or so present what I believe to be unprecedented opportunities for new business formation:

The ecosystem for creation, marketing and deployment of applications is incredibly rich, across environments and platforms. Think App Store and cloud-based computing paradigms. In addition, digital content is being created, shared and consumed in prodigious volume. Recent evolution in popular culture, worldwide, has paralleled and complemented enabling technology trends. Facebook’s rise depended as much on us deciding, en mass, that we wanted to share thoughts, photos, movies, location and online discoveries with extended networks of our friends as it did on any of its technology building blocks.

Throw in a global recession and its resulting liberation of talent from previous bindings, and the picture is complete: a rich brew of components for a new enterprise.

I’m thinking about how those elements might be combined to create the basis for something interesting and valuable. Stay tuned.

A True Story (Featuring: Drama, Tragedy and a Boiled Frog)

It was wrong. That’s important to get out up front. It was wrong, and by the time it was done, I knew it was wrong.

It was a wrong that flowed from inexperience and a misplaced sense of duty on my part, rather than from any hope of personal gain. Doesn’t matter.

It started out as something else, entirely legitimate, but, while only slowly, eventually evolved into something wrong.

Not then, but over two years later, it had a profound impact on my life, and on the company I loved.

I continue to live with its consequences today, and likely will for the remainder of my years.

It began one Spring day, in early April of 2001. It was only three weeks into a new assignment as leader for the Western Area of Symbol’s “The Americas” sales region, a position into which I was placed by our newly minted CEO, Tomo Razmilovic. I had tried to discourage the move, but, having turned down a posting to run the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region some six months earlier, Tomo was adamant. The entire conversation, by phone, lasted perhaps ninety seconds. Tomo didn’t like hearing “no”, and didn’t leave room for debate.

It was the first time in my career that I held a straight-out sales job.

“Rich, can I see you a moment?” That was Paul, one of the sales guys from the Western area, at the door to my office in San Ramon, California. (The office in fact still felt like it belonged to my predecessor, Mark, whose sudden decision to leave the company triggered my assignment. His artwork hung from the walls, not mine. Ellie’s picture hadn’t yet made it to the desktop.)

“Sure Paul, come on in.”

Continue reading

Use Stretch Goals to Stretch Thinking… But Commit to Make Plan

We all set goals as a central feature in our business planning. They declare direction, focus everyone on what's important, illustrate what success looks like, and allow us to keep score on our progress. Setting them is a bit of an art though, and can be tricky. Read on…

On the one hand, there's a pretty clear consensus about most features of what makes a well-articulated goal set. It should be:

  • Aligned with your priorities — Goals must clearly indicate to your team what's important, now and over the planning horizon. Call out too many goals, and your folks will likely be confused as to where to focus. Go for the minimum number that define what success looks like at each level of the organization.
  • Specific — The more precise the better. Don't be fuzzy.
  • Time-bounded — Not just what's to be achieved, but when, exactly.
  • Measureable — When it comes time to assess performance against a given goal, there should be no ambiguity: you made it, or you missed it.

So far, so good, right?

But what about how ambitious to be in setting the specifics? Do you go for the most aggressive goal that could possibly be achieved, lay-ups that just about can't be missed, or somewhere in between?

As in so many other aspects of judgement in business, there's no magic formula to apply, and no one right answer. You'll certainly want to consider many factors about your specific situation on the way to deciding, ranging from matters of pure fact (how much cash do I need to generate so as not to trip a loan covenant?) to ones related to human factors (will the team respond better now to being challenged to a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal, or one they're confident in blowing by?). There's no universal right answer (that's why they pay you the big bucks), but…

…There is however, in my experience, a framework that defines the merits of setting goals closer to one end of the spectrum of aggressiveness vs. the other.

Stretch goals, those that lie at the outermost extreme of what's possible, are a powerful instrument to get your team to think outside of the box. I've often found that a goal such as "Cut costs by 10%" yields either cries of "it can't be done — we've already cut to the bone," or the most pedestrian of possible initiatives. Counter to intuition however, setting one that challenges, "cut costs by 80%," after a "you've got to be kidding" initial response, often leads to a breakthrough approach to the problem, one that in fact achieves even more than the "impossible" goal.

When Jerry Swartz, Symbol Technologies' founder, set a "pole star" goal (see here for more on that) of designing a high performance bar code scanner with a cost of goods of under $50, at a time when the current cost was more than five times that, our engineers initially thought he was crazy. But the challenge made clear that incremental tweaks to their design wouldn't do. A fundamentally different approach was required.

Some years later, not too many, those same engineers had in fact (far) surpassed Jerry's goal. As importantly, throughout the intervening period, we pushed the cost envelope further, faster and perhaps just a bit more creatively than our competition — a major factor in our ability to sieze and maintain leadership in our space.

So, if they're so potent, why wouldn't we always set stretch goals?

Because there's very important value over there, toward the other end of the aggressiveness spectrum too…

That value lies in what happens when we step back, after the fact, and ask ourselves, "Did we make it?"

A good friend, investor in Intelleflex, and sage venture capitalist, Bob Pavey of Morgenthaler Ventures, is fond of explaining that in his experience there are two kinds of company, those that "Make Plan" and those that don't. Companies that make plan, always seem to do so. Ones that fall short, do so all the time too. Bob's on to something very important in that observation.

All of us who enjoy sports have seen it. Winners win, and losers don't. Winning is a habit. So's losing. Why? Because at the base of it, winning is about sustained purposeful effort and overcoming adversity. That's hard. It takes commitment and belief.

If your team consistently falls short of its goals, implicitly that becomes the norm. In effect, it becomes OK to fail. The effort required to prevail will not be mustered up by your team, and you will lose, time and time again.

The opposite is also true. As the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success. When your team gets a taste of winning, they'll want more. They'll push themselves, and each other, harder and longer. They'll be more confident. They'll step up, even to stretch goals, with the belief that, "of course we can do that."

My advice: be a leader whose team "makes plan." Use stretch goals selectively so as to stretch your team to think creatively, but set goals that you and your team are 100% committed to achieve. Get in the habit of winning.

A graphical summary of these ideas can be found here.

Berkshire to Acquire Burlington Northern – WSJ.com

Warren Buffett made the biggest bet of his career, agreeing to buy Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. in a $26.3 billion deal that reflects his long-term optimism about the U.S. economy.

via online.wsj.com

This is good news, a vote of confidence in a bedrock strata of the U.S. economy, by a very smart player. Combined with overnight voter signals to pol's not to swing too far into the progressive tax-and-spend fiscal wilderness, it signals positive prospects for our future.

Invest in well run companies, with solid long term business models, at attractive valuations… keep your focus on fundamental results over the long term and what drives them… and you will be rewarded. Adopt government policies that sustain a healthy economy, and individual successes aggregate into national ones.

TV Finds That a Mortal Foe, the DVR, Is Really a Best Friend – NYTimes.com

DVR, Once TV’s Mortal Foe, Helps Ratings




In what may seem a media business version of the Stockholm syndrome, television network executives have fallen in love with a former tormentor: the digital video recorder.

The reason is not simply that more households own DVRs — 33 percent compared with 28 percent at this point in 2008 — helping some marginal shows become hits. It is also that more people seem content to sit through the commercials than networks once thought.

These factors combined mean DVR ratings now add significantly to live ratings and thus to ad revenue.

“The DVR was going to kill television,” said Andy Donchin, director of media investment for the ad agency Carat. “It hasn’t.”

via www.nytimes.com

There's a lesson to be learned here: Disruptive technologies, as DVRs are to the traditional TV ecosystem business model, are most often better embraced and harnessed, rather than fought. The results can be surprisingly positive.

Times of change create leverage for shifts in market position. Leader / incumbents all too often see threat, when they should be seeing an opportunity to solidify and extend their positions into another generation of customer experience. This takes courage, confidence and imagination. If mustered however, it brings great reward.