Berkshire to Acquire Burlington Northern –

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.


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.

Alternate Perspectives

In an earlier post, I suggested that it's important sometimes to focus on the "half full" aspect of "your glass" and other times on its "half empty" portion. Here, a few related words on telescopes…

Telescope When thinking about a business challenge, and making related plans and decisions, I believe it's valuable to force yourself to view it through both ends of the telescope: Both the "right way" around, magnifying and examining the involved issues in all their fine detail, and also the "wrong way", so as to step back and see the big picture, condensing the specific question at hand down to its essential elements only, and examining them in context of your overall situation.

The former way of looking at a new product development effort, for example, yields questions such as:

  • Do we know how to implement "Feature X"?
  • How much more will it cost us to increase performance by 10%?
  • Have we considered alternative ways to organize this development?
  • Is Company A the best partner with whom to work on this?
  • How can we shorten time-to-market?

And so on.

The later, "wrong way," view through the telescope yields these:

  • Should we be doing this project at all?
  • Do we know how we'll make money selling this product?
  • Are we proliferating too many product variants?
  • Would the money we're about to spend here be better used adding more sales people?

Both sets of questions are valid, and important to ask and answer.

You should challenge your team to turn the telescope around regularly, looking at the issues they're facing from both perspectives. They'll make better decisions and waste less time and resource along the way.

When coaching on this point, I often also recommend that folks try to think about the questions they're tackling from the perspective of "Their Boss's Boss" Why? Because it forces them to think about "their" issue from a bigger picture perspective. How will various approaches to the problem impact not just their project, but the overall business? It challenges them to ask broader-based, and often more relevant questions.

Beyond injecting a higher order perspective into project team thought processes, this advice also has the salutory side effect of lessening silo thinking and organization politics. A focus on how to help an entire business unit displaces the narrow focus on personal or team issues that can all too easily consume the thinking of middle managers.

Half Full, or Half Empty? It Depends…

The product manager presenting his case for approval of phase gate passage on a new product development project was pitching the merits of the prospective new offering for all he was worth. If they believed the slam dunk advantages it would offer versus their pathetic alternatives, our competition would have no choice but to fold up tent and surrender.

Smiling, I saw an opportunity to make a point, and I did, along these lines…

There's a time for looking at the glass as half full or better, but also a time to see it as half empty, or worse.

Glass When presenting to prospective customers and partners, it's clearly important to focus on your advantages, illuminated in their best possible light. Your claims must be true, supportable and credible, but highlighting them over your possible shortcomings is common sense and fully appropriate in that context. It's "Half Full" time.

However, when engaged in an internal planning or decision-making process such as the one we were in the middle of that day some years ago, I believe that it's important to force yourself to consider the half of the glass that isn't full:

  • How might your competition offer and position advantages that you don't see or fully appreciate?
  • Could they be about to launch a new offering that trumps the one you're planning to develop?
  • Do your customers see the relative advantages of your respective products the same way you do? Do they care about the features you're spending money and time to develop?
  • Might there be greater technical risk in your planned development than you're acknowledging?

Only by soberly confronting these questions, and answering them honestly, will it be possible to make a decision intelligently of the sort we were confronting that day. Only through a process of healthy skepticism can you emerge with both a solid decision and a basis for confidence in how you'll move forward and win — a confidence much more secure than if you falsely see a full glass. Because, more likey than not, it's your own cool aid you'll be drinking when you pick it up, to the laughter of your competition.

A bit later in that same meeting, I offered up a somewhat related point, involving telescopes, not glasses. But I'll reserve that story for another day.

Mental Toughness

Jeter is adept at reducing the clutter that often engulfs players, especially perennial All-Jeter Stars who play in major markets like New York. He is a master at keeping things simple in his world. He is strong-willed enough to disregard things that do not concern him or to wait to address them until they do concern him.


Tiger Woods has it. Derek Jeter has it. ARod just found it. And it's the reason they're winners. "It" is mental toughness and the ability it gives them to focus on the task at hand. To prevent the noise and distractions around them from getting in their head. To simplify and execute, again and again, what they're capable of doing.

It, not their raw physical skills, is why I watch, often with chills of wonderment, their exploits. Believe me, it's easy to allow thoughts (of doubt, consequence, worry, anticipation…) to enter your head when you're standing over that big putt. I know. It's hard to shut them out, completely. Tiger does that.

A few games ago, I sent a text message to a close friend and fellow Yankee fan, that the Yankees "…have 'The Look'." What I meant was that the entire team had started to carry itself like Jeter. Quiet, focused, confident and in the moment, like there was no place else in the world that they belonged.

Mental toughness and the ability to focus pays dividends in business as well as sport:

It gives you the ability to concentrate on what's really important amidst the clutter.

It gives you the ability to do the right thing when temptations to take shortcuts present themselves.

It gives you the ability handle that difficult conversation with calm, professionalism and even grace.

It fuels the perseverance required to push through difficult times.

It provides confidence in your ability to handle extreme challenges

It is contagious.

One of my mentors, Ray Martino, a tremendously effective president at Symbol, had it. He used to stress that at any particular point of time, only about three things in our business really mattered. "Focus on those, get them right, and the rest will be OK." He also regularly explained that sometimes it's not worth worrying about a decision until it needed to be made. "Don't clutter your head with things that just might take care of themselves." When it was time to make that decision however, Ray made it firmly and with confidence. Ray had mental toughness, and was a winner.

Do you have the mental toughness to play on the big stage? To win?

The Golden Balance

Aristotelian philosophy holds among its tenets the merits of striving for a harmonious middle ground in all things. Many others since the ancients have voiced a similar point of view.

But others, not innate immoderates incapable of seeing an alternative point of view, but practical people thinking about how to get things done in the real world of business, have warned against aiming at analogues to The Golden Mean.

We're warned that failure to be decisive when called for leads to paralysis, that wavering leaders don't get followed and that trying to be all things to all people is a recipe for mediocrity, at best.

More specifically…

Michael Porter of Harvard cautions us against getting strategically "stuck in the middle" as, for example, between premium and value-based positioning.

Geoffrey Moore takes a similar position with regard to the need to choose a business architecture optimized for complex system sales or for sale of high volume standard products.

Treacy and Wiersema argue that we must have the discipline to choose between three fundamental strategic alternatives or fail to become a market leader.

Continue reading

Share your Vision, Climb the Ladder to Trusted Advisor

In a recent post I argued that a powerful way to drive innovation at your tech company is to regularly put your best engineers in front of your best customers, under conducive circumstances.

Today, a few words about one such "conducive circumstance", one with multiple benefits that extend even beyond those described in my earlier note.

First, consider how your prospects and customers think about the contestants on your competitive playing field…

Whether explicitly or not, prospective customers tend to categorize you and your competitors along a scale of relevance and confidence from "vendor" on the low end to "trusted advisor" on the high, (with various shades of grey in between.) If your customer ranks you a vendor, you'll spend most of your selling time with a junior manager in the purchasing department. If, through your approach and successes over time, you've climbed the ladder to trusted advisor status, you'll be sitting down with top brass there over coffee on a regular basis.

In my experience, one of the most powerful techniques to climb that ladder to its highest rung is described below. Here's the recipe:

Step 1. Develop a comprehensive view of how your technologies and products will advance in the mid to long term future — a road map of ideas and innovation. Push your team to keep this refreshed with your latest and best thinking.

Step 2. Develop a compelling narrative describing how those advances can enable new solutions and benefits for your customers (and perhaps for their customers), expressed in your customer's own language and terms.

Step 3. Capture these thoughts into presentation materials (developed with a keen eye toward encouraging audience interaction).

Step 4. Use this presentation as a centerpiece in customer visits (your place or theirs). Invite your best and most creative engineers to the meeting. The presentation should be led by the most senior member of your team able to speak compellingly about the intersection of your future road map and emergent customer solution opportunities; this can be a teamed affair.

Step 6 (The most important). LISTEN to what your customers say in response to your ideas, and engage them in a robust dialogue around their perspectives. (This is where your engineers can add great value to the process.)

Properly done, the ensuing discussion will bring out your customers' best thinking about what they find truly powerful in your vision, what needs further tuning, and which "good ideas" may need to be re-directed or dropped.

Properly done, you'll learn from each other: they about what's possible just over the technology horizon, you about their thoughts regarding the future of their business.

Properly done, the ideas for your next great product will come out one of these sessions, and your engineers will be energized with enthusiasm and subtle insights.

Properly done, and repeated regularly, you'll come to be regarded as a thought leader. Combine thought leadership and flawless execution and, over time, you'll find yourself a Trusted Advisor.

There, wasn't that simple?

Well, no, not really. There's actually quite a bit to master here…

First, you better have something meaningful to say in these sessions. For that, you'll need to be an genuine innovator. (Note however that this technique creates a virtuous circle — the more you employ it, the more you'll have to say next time around.)

Next, you need to be able to express your ideas in your customers' terms. That means learning their language, their business issues, their priorities. The presenter / discussion leader must keep the discussion focused on the very point of intersection between your road map and their future business imperatives.

Creative, innovative people on your team often like to talk. Listen? Sometimes, not so much. You'll need to ensure a balance between words spoken and heard. (This can be a challenge when the enthusiastic innovator is the CEO!)

You better be able to execute. All the brilliant ideas in the world won't earn you anything (except declining credibility) if they stay up there in PowerPoint.

A few other tips..

Above, I suggested that your presentation should include your mid to long term (3 – 5 years, not next quarter) road map. Multiple benefits are realized through this focus: the longer range ideas will likely have the greatest impact (gee whiz appeal: "Wow, you can do that?"), they will run much lower risk of cannibalizing or stalling any pending projects your sales team is trying to close with your customer, and the dialogue will not come across as a sales pitch (it's not intended to be, except in the broadest sense of relationship building — it's about the ideas; there will be plenty of time to sell later.).

Related to that last point: While your future technology, product and solution ideas can't be fiction, they don't need to be specific in all details, including in the time it will take to reach them. Jerry Swartz, Symbol's founder, used to use the term "Pole Star" to describe this concept. Like Polaris serving as a guide to a hiker, the star may never be reached, but it sets and announces a committed direction. And, every once in a while, your engineers will develop arms long enough to reach that star. We talked about a laser "Scanner on a Chip" for a decade or two before it was realized (scoring points for vision and innovation prowess all along the way).

Some may wonder if this fulsome disclosure of future technology directions might not expose you to the risk of them leaking to your competition. I suppose it can, but with a bit of care, the advantages outweigh the risks. Ask your customers to sign a non-disclosure agreement in advance of the session. It may not afford total protection, but it does some, and it can actually add to the "this is something special" impact of the session. Your real protection should come from the fact that your strategies reflect a unique fit to your company and its competencies (the Colts playbook is not so valuable without Peyton Manning as the quarterback), and from your commitment to execution excellence (are you going to let your competition beat you on your turf?).

In my experience, this stuff works — powerfully. Some years ago, a week or two after one such session, I found myself sharing a golf cart with one of the US's largest retailers' key IT executives (Coincidence? I don't think so…). I can still hear him, saying something to the effect, "You know one of the main reasons we buy more from Symbol than any of your competitors? It's because you bring us more good and innovative thinking about how your technology can transform our business than even our major system platform suppliers," (who were many times Symbol's size). That's Trusted Advisor talk.

Gold Standard for Customer Service

Driving into NYC a couple of years back, my mobile phone rang. On the other end was the Customer Services Manager of The Carlyle Hotel, my destination that evening. She begged my pardon for calling without prior notice or invitation, and then asked if I would kindly provide her with my wife's middle name. After a brief pause to puzzle as to the reason, I replied (it's Rae Ida), she thanked me, and Ellie and I continued our journey.

Upon arrival, about an hour later, the purpose of her mysterious query was revealed. Because on the bed, in crisp white linen, were monogrammed pillow cases — Ellie's on her side ("ERIB"), mine ("REB") on the other. I learned later that that particular evening marked the one hundredth time I enjoyed their hospitality. The VIP pillows… a small sign of recognition.

The same arrangement has greeted me on every stay since.

How much did it cost to produce those pillow cases? How much did it buy in loyalty (and now, PR)? Do the math, and ask yourself, "Am I really doing everything possible to recognize and serve my best customers?"


A Simple (but BIG) Key to Innovation

Want to drive killer innovation at your technology company? Well, there are a lot of moves that you'll ultimately need to master to lead the league in that category, but today I'll talk about one that's fundamental and that I know works, from first hand experience. Best thing about it: it's dead simple…

Create the right opportunities to put your geek engineers in front of your customers, especially your best customers.

That's it.

Pause, while some sales pros among you compose yourselves. You're thinking, "OMG, why would I ever want to do that? Those guys are bound to say something embarrassing, or outright stupid, that will kill my next sale." (Like the unvarnished truth.)

Here's why…

Because they create, literally, the value that your customers buy and that funds your commission.

Because if they hear the raw, unfiltered thoughts of your customers, they'll be that much smarter in designing your next generation product.

Because your customers will be amazed that you did this — since very few, if any, of your competitors do.

Because they'll help you climb the ladder from "supplier" to "trusted adviser / thought leader".

Because they're the smartest guys in your company, and you should leverage their IQ points to best advantage.

Because the ensuing dialogue will often result in your customers telling you exactly what they want from you in the future.

Because your engineers will realize just exactly how painful for your customers it is when your products don't live up to lofty promises.

Because your engineers will be energized to do big things. They, at least the best of them, want to build great products, not just play with neat technology. Great products are those that make a meaningful difference to (important) customers. How do you know that you're working on a "Great Product" if you never talk to the customer?

Above I said, "create the right opportunities…" Sometime soon I'll expand on one way to do just that.


Small Within Big

IStock_000002647543XSmall "We need to stay small within big." It was one of the core ideas our founder, Jerry Swartz, preached from our earliest days at Symbol, right through to the point where we had grown to be pretty big indeed (5600 associates, $1.6B top line, $4B market cap). Jerry understood that our ongoing success would depend on maintaining many of the behaviors that come naturally as a small company, but that can fall by the wayside if not continuously reenforced as an enterprise scales.

In may ways, I believe that we were quite successful in living up to Swartz's admonition. I further think this was one of the secrets of our success, and a principal reason so many of us developed and held a deep passion about working there.

Allow me to offer a few thoughts about how to stay small within big…

Keep focused externally, on what matters: customers and competition. Large companies often fall into the trap of getting all wrapped up in their own organizational matters and processes, and fail to pay attention to what's paying the bills.

When focusing on competition, work hard to ensure that your team takes success and failure as seriously as they care about their home town ball team's winning and losing.

Commit to remain responsive. Answer all calls and emails within 24 hours. Manage time effectively to allow responsiveness. Not too long ago, I called to schedule a five minute follow-up phone call with an executive at a major corporation. His assistant offered me two time slots, both six weeks into the future! I thought she was joking; I found out not, and that this sort of thing is routine there.

Use small-as-possible cross-functional teams as the basic organization building block to get things done. One of the things that brings about hardening of corporate arteries is the silo behavior that develops if most work is organized on strict functional lines. Cross-functional teams, properly managed and supported by executive management, break down silo walls. Often, small teams get more done than larger counterparts, especially when it comes to innovation.

Make sure that everyone understands not just what they're supposed to do (priorities), but why it's important (in the big picture). If not, they'll start approaching their work as "just a job", not as a passionate undertaking aimed at big things. You want to laugh at Dilbert cartoons, not become one.

Encourage experimentation and learning (especially from worthwhile failures — those with initial promise that didn't quite work out). Risk aversion is another affliction of companies that have grown too large (in their thinking and behaviors) to succeed.

Encourage unorthodox ideas (and their authors). They are often the keys to breakthrough success. Learn how to manage and nurture productive non-conformists (not easy, but important). You do not want a company of clones.

Put real energy into ensuring that there's a genuine and candid dialogue up and down and all across your enterprise. All hands meetings, online forums, management by walking around are all effective tools. Listening, genuinely listening to what your team is saying is incredibly important.

Don't forget the basic principals that keyed your success and fueled your growth to begin with. Even as you develop and deploy new strategies to address new opportunities and challenges, be careful not to forget or abandon blindly the cultural values and other foundational elements on which your early dreams were realized.

Don't forget to have fun.

Consider using Jerry's "Small within Big" phrase, it worked for us!

I'm sure that there are many other ideas, but the ones above are among those that proved successful in my personal experience. Perhaps they may be of use in yours.

A Timely Adage

It's October, and for this long time Yankee fan, thoughts inevitably turn to balls and strikes… and in this case to a connection between them and the world of business.

Snapz Pro XScreenSnapz001 "Hit it where they ain't." That, according to (very) old timer Willie Keeler (Baltimore Orioles 1896 – 1897), is how you get on base and drive in runs in our national pastime. I believe that inside that old adage lies a lesson that every business person should take to heart.

If you want to boast of a high batting average, you should aim for the gaps, not the shortstop, especially if he's Derek Jeter (with apologies to fans of all other stripes than pin). If you want to grow your business profitably into a leadership position, you should plan to deliver unique solutions to underserved applications, customers and markets. These are the "gaps" of business opportunity.

Trying to build a business by doing a little bit better, or just a little bit different, than entrenched competitors is tough going at best. Yes, you'll get a grounder just past the shortstop's reach on occasion, but more often than not, you'll be out at first.

My current company, Intelleflex, has been built from day one on a gap strategy, in marked contrast to many other players in RFID technology. I believe that the principal reason that RFID's breakout success still lies ahead of us is that, lured by the promise of huge volumes, many of those other players have been trying to squeeze one by the shortstop, by, in effect, offering a bit more capability than bar coding, for only a bit higher price. Bar codes are the Derek Jeter of automatic identification technology. Bar coding is flexible, cost effective, proven, and broadly entrenched. Tough to beat that allstar combination with an incrementalist value proposition.

Our strategy is to try to get a hit where bar coding ain't — and where it will never be.

Bar codes are great, but they will never be able to measure and log temperatures. They can't be read at 100 meters distance. Can't be located in large open areas. Can't read through optically opaque materials. Can't store 60 thousand bits of read / write data. We can do all those things. As importantly, It turns out that there are underserved, high value business problems that depend on various combinations of these "extended capabilities". Those are our gaps, and that's where we're aiming the ball. (We may still go down swinging, but it won't be for a flawed gameplan.)

Do you have a clear picture of your gaps? The real, compelling and meaningful differences between your offerings and those of your competition? The customers to whom those differences matter? If not, perhaps it's time to watch a little baseball, and think a little business.