The way the greatest companies extend and elevate their leadership? Stick with bedrock principles (here: the power of great design), while aggressively challenging the status quo of specific instantiations of those, regardless of their origins.
Sometimes you need a place of escape. Private. Away. Yours.
Across the drive, a bit to the north of the front door of my house in Carmel Valley, I've been fortunate enough to have such a place from which to work when in California, for all these years. Six hundred square feet. Never really refined, rough in fact by any reasonable measure… but a place of refuge.
Stickley furniture moved from New York. A lithograph of a spectacular golf hole in Ireland, where (among numerous others) I pulled one into the ocean, next to a set of placques commemorating patents I may or may not have principally authored.
A fireplace offering smokey echoes of past comforts.
A Sirius radio purchased in the first years of satellite broadcasts, which will go on offering the Sinatra channel and Classic Vinyl and Real Jazz (my favorites, for what it's worth) free of charge for the duration of its days.
Overflow wine racks from next door. A few family pictures. A lot of memories.
And a window. Looking uphill. Where in years past cattle, from a ranch then operational, would wander by on occasion. Pretty regularly, in fact. That ranch has now been sold off, but the land is still pretty open… not wild, but not far from it. Visitors no longer include any large four legged creatures, at least not that I've seen lately. But from time to time, nature shows up, here in the form of a few wild turkeys caught in the rectangular aperture that is view from a room.
He knows that it's critical to engage his audience immediately. His goal is to grab and thrust you into the action in the opening scene, providing momentum to be built on page after page. (Driving home yesterday, I heard him explain this exact point, in an NPR interview.)
While the best selling author's aims are to entertain, a "start strong, get to the point" imperative also applies to business communication of all types, even more so I believe.
When we open a book or sit down to watch a movie, we're planning to spend hours being diverted. No so when reading an email or report, participating in a meeting or training session, or listening to a conference speaker. Here, we expect to use our time efficiently toward the achievement of a goal: to gain information, frame and decide on a question or seek alignment with others.
But as we all know, our expectations are not always met. Too often we instead get:
- "Long wind up" beginnings to meetings, training sessions and presentations that drag on before getting to the important meaty material;
- Emails that you have to read two or three times to unearth the author's point or intent (all along wondering if he has one).
Don't make these mistakes next time you plan a meeting or write a memo. Think like Grisham. Make sure that you engage your audience right from the start, and get to the point, clearly and directly.
- If your communication is about sharing information, say that, and then lay it out.
- If you want a decision to be made in a meeting, make it clear up front that's your goal, lay out the choices, any required background (essential material only), make a recommendation and secure the decision.
- If you're providing training, get right into it; no long preliminaries.
In all cases, remember that your audience are human beings, not machines. That means you need to engage their emotions to secure and hold their attention. At minimum, this requires explaining or giving evidence right up front as to why your topic matters to them, individually and as a team.
If at all possible, find a way to reinforce your key messages with a story, which has the dual and related benefits of engaging your audience's emotions and of being much more memorable than a dry recitation of facts.
Learn to communicate like Grisham and you'll be a more effective business person.
It's a cold and rainy evening here in Carmel Valley. But I feel both warm and incredibly lucky.
In the past twenty four hours I've heard so many kind thoughts from so many of you as to leave me lost for words. (A rare state of affairs, as you well know.)
I've had phone conversations with three colleagues from past lives, with last contact dating back six, ten and thirty years.
I've been reminded of stories I have never forgotten, but rendered just that much more precious through finding that they hold special places in the memories of others as well.
I've heard from people I feel I let down. People with whom I've celebrated great success. People who are where I was a few short weeks ago, wondering what will come next in life's journey. People who are special to me here and now, but who took the time to record their thinking for others to see. People who have taken chances, and found that they've led to great promise. People who kindly suggested that my thoughts here have been of some help.
To all I say thank you, and thank you again.
And to those of you with whom I'll be embarking on a new journey, I promise to work very hard to create the opportunity for new successes, new memories, new stories… that we can share in the years that lie ahead.
6 Oak Meadow Lane
5:30 PM, 10 December 2009
This morning arrived cold and gray, with a gusting wind from the north. I woke early, well before first light and, unable to summon back sleep, made my way downstairs, fixed a pot of tea, lit a fire and sat down to read (the biographies of Emerson and James I'm now working through).
A bit later, it appeared that the weather and angle of the sun might create conditions favorable for capturing a few images. I had an hour or so before a mid-morning meeting with some folks I had offered to help with planning a start-up, so I headed directly north, to a local beach operated by the town of Smithtown, New York.
I arrived and found that the visitor population was now exactly one. (Although fresh looking tracks in the sand led me to surmise that someone had walked their dog on the beach sometime earlier, and a biker trio rumbled through mid-way during my time there.)
The wind was gusting 30 – 40, cold and dry. Shafts of sunlight appeared now and then through otherwise brooding skies. The waters, in both Nissequogue estuary and LI Sound, were in a fine boil. I captured a few images. I hope that you enjoy them in the album at right.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
Want to be a great company? Commit to, invest in, and deliver great products, and you'll be on your way.
WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security has spent $230 million to develop better technology for detecting smuggled nuclear bombs but has had to stop deploying the new machines because the United States has run out of a crucial raw material, experts say.
You see my point, from our last post…
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.
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.