Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Good teams collect differences

No-one assembles a soccer team of eleven goalkeepers. Teams that just have the brightest people, or the most technically skilled, will not outperform others.

Instead, successful teams must contain all the different technical skills required to do the task, along with the right personalities and priorities. I've appreciated the insights from researcher Meredith Belbin that teams need to cover eight basic roles:
  • A Chairperson is necessary to pick the people, to listen, encourage and focus and co-ordinate the effort.
  • Then there's what Belbin calls the 'Shaper' who is task-oriented and can (sometimes impatiently) act as the spur for action.
  • A generator of Ideas and proposals, someone who can be quite creative and intelligent, but not necessarily bound in details that could hold the creativity back.
  • Belbin's Monitor-Evaluator is almost the opposite, better at analysis than creativity. This is the person who checks things out, points out flaws in an argument and keeps an eye on the clock!
  • Without a Resource Investigator little progress can be made: this role involves keeping the team in touch with the world around it and marshalling the raw materials and other resources necessary to make progress.
  • The Team Worker is usually likeable and popular, keeping everyone going by encouragement and understanding and support.
  • The Implementer is a practical organizer and administrator who turns ideas into action.
  • The Completer-Finisher helps the team to meet its deadlines with a relentless focus on follow-through.
If those are the general roles that have to be covered, most teams also need access to a technical Specialist who brings access to scarce knowledge or skills.
No one is equally strong in each of these areas; but most of us can do reasonably well in several of them, even if we are best at just one or two. An important emphasis, though, is to ensure that each of these roles is covered in practice. 
In the teams I run it's something I now consciously pay attention to and, though I naturally do best at the Chairman, Implementer and Ideas roles, I'll make sure that the others get done, even if I have to do the Monitor-Evaluator stuff because no-one else is!! 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Problems facing the bottom billion

So  life's pretty miserable in the Western world right now and the UK Chancellor's Autumn Statement is depressing, along with the markets and the news in general. I've spoken with four business leaders today, all separately, and all very scared about the next two months and beyond. But, still, our problems pale...

Part of my 'light reading' is a book, The Bottom Billion, from my old university professor Paul Collier. He talks about the systemic and structural problems for one seventh of the world's population, problems that mean they have almost no choices and almost no hope of escape. He shows how hard it is to break the cycle of destruction for countries that are locked in conflict, or with natural resources plundered, or landlocked with 'bad neighbors' or with poor government with few checks and balances.

It's hard work getting through the depressive, if accurate, analysis: I'm hoping for some more encouragement in the final chapter that promises 'An Agenda for Action!'

Perhaps, though, the key is to start small and to do what we can with what we've got, and to become less self-absorbed in the process :)
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Thursday, November 24, 2011

What we want from work

Few of us work for just the money: once the basics of life are covered, then money transforms, for some, into a measure of success. But, for most, there are other factors that come into play and reward us more.
  • Personal freedom - Few of us likes to be micro-managed. We prefer to understand and agree vision and values and strategy and, within limits, to be accountable for how we organize and deliver the results.
  • Respect of colleagues - Even someone who works entirely alone, like an artist, craves the affirmation of a job well done from customers and others. Most of us appreciate knowing that our work makes a difference and is valued by others.
  • Learning something new - Grounded in the IT industry, I rapidly learned that 'everything' changes every few months. We can't be effective without a commitment to lifelong learning and the ability to assimilate new information and assess its significant implications.
  • Challenge - Most of us appreciate the challenge of getting something accomplished despite risks and adversity. Even more important is when the challenge is viewed as somehow significant.
  • Completing a project - We have to celebrate success and break down bigger tasks into smaller milestone chunks that can be achieved in a reasonable time and effort. That sense of accomplishment fuels the sense of progress and spurs us on to new achievements.
  • Helping other people - When I was younger I ruled out a number of career choices because I just couldn't see how they made the world a better place. Most of us release our best potential when what we do is seen as worthwhile and makes a difference to others.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Facebook tracking details

Thanks to @MarkDansie for spotting an explanation of Facebook information tracking:

About logged in Facebook users: 
  • Facebook keeps a timestamped list of the web URLs you visit, paired with your name, 
  • Lists of friends, Facebook preferences, email address, IP address, screen resolution, operating system, and browser.
About Facebook users who are logged out:
  • Facebook still captures everything except your name, list of friends, and Facebook preferences. Instead, it uses a unique alphanumeric identifier to track you.
Now, though Facebook could still match a name to that 'unique alphanumeric identifier' the company says that it doesn't. But they probably retain the capability to make that match if, say, law enforcement asks them to. And, besides, studies have shown that the information about IP address, screen resolution, operating system and browser configurations is almost certainly sufficient to identify Internet users uniquely.

Why do this? Because Facebook is a business engaged in selling stuff: both information about users and advertising to users. The richer and more complete the information they have, the more valuable their business and the higher their share price when they float. You are what's being sold.
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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Confidence crisis

Each day the news from the world economy seems more grim. And it doesn't look as though things will get much better in 2012. What we're experiencing is a crisis of confidence, and it's a crisis at the personal (micro) level as much as the national/global (macro) level.

For example, the pound coin or dollar in my pocket is only worth that much if, when I hand it over, you believe that you can get a pound or dollar worth of goods and services from someone else...Our money supply is no longer backed by anything hard and tangible (like gold) and so it's only worth the value stamped on it if we believe it's worth that value to other people too.

What we're seeing at the level of nations and global banking corporations is an erosion of confidence in their intrinsic value, or ability to service the debt that they've incurred. And it's affecting lots of things, including very small, local decisions about what individual consumers buy and, at a slightly bigger scale, what projects business leaders invest in.

Trouble is, there's no easy or quick solution once the confidence begins to slip as it has done. The bottom line is that there's money and investment around for businesses that are demonstrably already making money, but little or none for those where there's a risk to be taken. And business is very largely about taking risks and making investments. Tough.
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Monday, November 21, 2011

Accelerating transformation

It's a bit of a paradox, but the best way to accelerate transformational change is to pause long enough to form a plan. Change will certainly 'just happen,' but it's unlikely to be the change that you want, or the best that it could be if you'd tackled things a bit differently.

So, in preparing to tackle a new situation, take time out well in advance to prepare and to plan: don't just turn up on the first day hoping that things will work out nicely from that point on. That way breeds disaster!
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Monday, November 14, 2011

Challenges to IT service provision

CIOs and colleagues responsible for supporting dispersed users face increasing challenges. And it got more complicated last week when Adobe announced that its Flash technology is now a dead-end (only, officially, mobile platforms: but, as they are growing massively to outnumber conventional computers it's only a matter of time).

Trouble is, the HTML5 swirl of technology is not yet ready to replace it: sure, you can use HTML5 now to serve up video. But Flash technology has been used to do much more than just that; for example to provide smart applications that run in a browser and make less demands of the network and central services.

Business applications can't afford to wait a few years for HTML to catch up, still less for the standards-compliance politics to be worked through. So we'll have to bear the cost of continuing some measured use of Flash and being prepared to write off the investment over a shorter period, as well as bear the costs of re-development when the new tools become available.
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Friday, November 11, 2011

Strategic change demands adaptability

We had a lengthy internal meeting yesterday to plan our tactical response to the latest round of changes in the IT landscape that we operate in. The trigger was Adobe's announcement this week that its Flash technology is essentially dead.

Of course, the official Adobe news was only that it would not develop Flash for mobile platforms; but as mobile (smartphone and tablet) outnumbers other personal computing platforms by a factor of 4:1 it's really only a matter of time before Flash ceases to be dominant on PC-accessed versions of the Web, too. Once HTML5 gets up to speed and becomes a real contender, not just for video delivery but for the sort of applications that Flash has been used to build, then there's no reason why anyone would build new stuff for Flash when HTML5 will work nicely on mobile and 'desktop' platforms equally.

So, the analogy that came to mind - again - yesterday was that of a ship's "helmsman." The helmsman's job is to get the ship to the destination, with the cargo and crew, on behalf of the owner; even though the wind and the waves will be trying to blow things off course and the currents and other conditions will be constantly changing.

This is what happened with Adobe's Flash announcement this week. A still-great technology has suddenly become a dead-end and, in response to the changing circumstances around us, we need to adapt our tactics, while holding to the strategy and the cargo-destination combination from the helmsman analogy.
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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Maslow's hierarchy hits the 'net

You've probably heard of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: the idea that physiological needs (breathing, food, water, sex, etc) are more important than those of security which in turn form the base for more rarified needs like love, belonging, esteem and 'self-actualization.'

The interesting news from a recent Cisco report is that 'one in three college students and young professionals consider the Internet to be as important as air, water, food, and shelter' - They're saying that access to the Internet is a fundamental building-block of life now. Thanks to @MarkDansie for Tweeting the link to the report: he notes that electricity is missing from the list, and pretty fundamental before the Internet can be delivered!

I guess the view from the survey respondents is a bit distorted by taking the air, water, food and shelter stuff for granted: we recently had our hot water heater blow up and we were taking cold showers each day for two weeks until it was fixed. Certainly, as I washed each day my mind was far from the Internet and I resolved to try not to take warm water in cold weather for granted again! And I'd be even less interested in web surfing if I actually had to carry water from a dirty river or well each day; or protect my family from civil war and unrest ...

But, despite the fact that the fundamental importance of Internet connectivity is highlighted in a report commissioned by one of the dominant companies that supplies that sort of connectivity, it's certainly my experience that I feel a little lost and disoriented without the ability swiftly to research or communicate that the Internet provides. And it will only become more important globally as time goes by.

Expect access to the Internet to become required much sooner than previously, once those basic physiological and security needs are met.
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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Walk or run?

I've always been advised "Don't run before you can walk" and in putting together a business deal for a new industry sector it certainly seems wise to start small. After all, the key players don't yet know each other and it's wise to let revenue grow, trust develop and to minimise the investment required. It's not just financial; the more features we add to the opportunity, the longer it will take to get all the agreements straight.

However, as I spent the latter part of the afternoon drafting an outline paper for the CEO of one of our proposed partner companies I couldn't help but dream of where all this could lead; and set some markers for the future that others can begin to grasp, too.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Win-win negotiation

Just out of a great meeting with the CEO of a potential partner company, gaining us access to a new industry vertical...

Part of the key to success here is going to be following the principles I got taught years back in the classic book Getting to Yes where the simple message is to look for what they call "win-win" situations: look for a way in which each party to an agreement is going to get something out of the result.

By making sure that the customer gets what is needed, at a great value price; and each of the other parties in the distribution and delivery chain also gets the opportunity to make money, then there is the set of necessary incentives to build mutual success.
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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Entrepreneurs think widely

Part of the way to achieve that all-important lateral thinking is for entrepreneurs to listen, read, learn from as many sources as possible.

That's what is giving us the ability to take an innovative solution that cuts costs and increases revenue in one industry to entirely new sectors. And each sector we operate in has its own particular needs and challenges; in turn, meeting these can often translate across to other sectors, propelling innovation.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Entrepreneurs run counter-culture

With the global macro-economy beyond chaotic, those who haven't already lost money are sitting on their cash. Confidence is in free-fall and risk-taking is low.

Against this background, entrepreneurs run counter-culture. Both Google and Microsoft were founded in (less) difficult economic circumstances. Trying to find external sources of working capital is probably a poor return on the time involved at present, so bootstrapping a business is one of the most rewarding ways forward.

But those who are prepared to take the risks, and can innovate a response to market needs, stand to gain once they've solved the usual route-to-market issues as well, of course!
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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Entrepreneurs spot gaps

I sometimes find myself explaining that part of my role is to look at the marketplace around, and to try to see into the future, hunting for problems that need to be solved.

For me, this is a critical part of the marketing process, market research. It's something that we then take to innovate a solution that we can bring to market at a profit to sustain operations and further growth.

One of the biggest challenges, surprisingly, is in explaining the opportunity to others. If I were proposing a vacuum cleaner, it would be easy. Because people know what a vacuum cleaner is, the question at once focuses on why this new cleaner is better than Dyson or Hoover.

But if people have no frame of reference, this is a genuine innovation, then the process becomes more complex and lengthy; and only the equally innovative or visionary grasp the potential.
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