Your Network is your Net Worth

We love to live in silos.

Silos are our comfort zones where we do what we like. We stay in familiar surroundings. We meet with whom we are comfortable with. We do things that make us secure. This is typically our default behavior.

Well that is very – for lack of better word – comfortable. Life is good. What’s the problem?

The problem is that while comfort zone is very comforting, it is not where progress happens. All smart people proactively get uncomfortable as soon as they start getting comfortable. That is what leads to growth, however you define it.

One comfort zone is to only meet with people we want or have to meet. This is typically four sets – family, friends, people with similar interests and co-workers. We make all efforts to stay within this ‘network’ and filter out the rest. What can be worse than talking to that monster creature called a ‘stranger’?

Well, what can be worse, is that you stay within your ‘limited network’. Your net worth is your network, and that does not improve. One can argue that it actually depreciates with time. It is like reading the same books again and again. You are constrained with the constraints of your network.

You can guess where I am getting to. You need to get uncomfortable. You need to proactively, deliberately and consciously expand the set of people of people you know. You need to reach wider. It is like picking up new – and different – books to read. The benefits are immense: you grow as a person, your capacity to do more increases, you become more ‘worthy’.

One caveat is that your network is not just a function of how many people you know, but more importantly of how diverse a set of a people you know. Think of groups of similar people as clusters – a cluster of software engineers, a cluster of marketing folks, a cluster of academics, a cluster of people who love cars and dogs. The default way of growing your network may be just getting to know more people in your own clusters. Software engineers getting to know more software engineers. Marketing folks connecting with more marketing folks. People loving cars and dogs talking to others loving cars and dogs. It’s like reading more books of the same type. The problem statement remains the same – you are still in comfort zone, its just a bigger comfort zone.

A key component of the net worth of your network really is how many you know across these clusters. Are you standing alone at an island, or do you have bridges to other islands? If you are a software programmer, do you know bankers, people who sell cars, someone who can get you a plane ticket quickly when you are desperate for it, someone who is CEO of a software firm and is not your boss, someone in the investor cluster who can give a reference?

While this diversity defines the breadth of your network, equally, if not more important, is the depth or quality of your network.

As a matter of fact, I do not like the term ‘network’. It somehow sounds mechanical. The connotations can be misleading – you just need to know people. It can mean just having them on your LinkedIn or Facebook. The term that matters is relationships. That is what defines the depth or quality of your connection. That is the reason LinkedIn does not show you exact number of your connections once it increases past 500. It is not a numbers game.

Relationship is a two-way street. You have to provide value to someone before you expect anything. You need to know about the other person before telling her about yourself. You need to know what matters to them before you start telling them what matters to you. Relationships are funny – you help yourself by helping others. It is not a sales pitch. You give and then it comes back to you manifold.

Relationships across diversity of clusters is what really defines your net worth. The only way to achieve this is to be intentional and proactive about it. Once it happens, you will start seeing what you have been missing out on.

Happy relationship-ing!

Hiring for a Marathon or Sprint?

An executive’s life is rife with decision making. Small or big, strategic or tactical, he seems to be always deciding. The worst backlog is that of pending decisions. The worst executive is one who is stalled and paralyzed.

Of the decisions that get to his desk, most critical ones are on people: promotion, hiring, firing, transfer, selections. They have the most profound impact on organization. Picking a wrong strategy or incorrectly prioritizing a project can be undone. A bad people decision sticks longer and cuts deeper. Smart organizations treat people as drivers of success, not as tools to achieve their targets (that is why I hate using the term ‘resources’ for people).

President Nixon wrote in his book “The Arena” that the President of United States is always making important decisions. However, if he messes up an economic policy decision, that is not so damaging as the US economy has a solid base. However, one bad foreign policy decision can have dire consequences.

People decisions for an executive in an organization are like foreign policy decisions of the state.

Hence, when faced with a people decision, specially a new hire, the executive has to understand the burden of responsibility. A bad hiring decision is easy to make, difficult to undo and keeps haunting every day. It is like incurring a bad debt with a long payout.

In making the choice, the executive must avoid some common mental traps. For example, he hires someone like him, essentially building a team of his clones. Or he lets his biases or experiences let him drive the decision rather than the facts on the ground.

But the most important trap is to let the demands of the present dictate the call. It is preferring urgent over important. If you are hiring someone for a 3 month project, then it does not matter. You pick the most prepared option. However, most hirings are with a long term focus. They are for running a marathon, not sprinting a 100-meter. Just because there is a failing project needing a thrust should not drive the choice so the new hire can ‘immediately add value’.

Whom you select for marathon should be based on strong fundamentals and right attitudes rather than a particular skill set or specific experience of the candidate. The skills can be learnt, experiences can be created, exposures can be made, but its difficult to redo the foundations. You buy a car that works better for you for years rather than just the upcoming road trip (for that you can always rent it out).

So next time a people decision comes to your desk, ask whether you are making the choice to run a sprint or a marathon. That will help you make a better pick.

The Story of Story-telling

Jeff is a great guy. He has a knack of making others get his point. He is an excellent communicator. He engages others. He is convincing and persuasive. He generously quotes stories, anecdotes, historical events, personal experiences and real world examples. He uses these examples to get his point across. His narratives are realistic rather than abstract. People get him better because they can immediately become part of his stories.

Jeff is a great example of an effective communicator and teacher. He uses stories. Real or fictitious stories. He narrates them in a way that the listener can relate to with the events and characters inside them. He takes listeners for a ride through his narrations. When they reach the end, they have lived an experience and have learnt something. The objective is the learning and derivation at the end, not the joyride. The joyride is just the vehicle, an enjoyable one though.

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Stories are Jeff’s most effective tool to communicate, persuade and teach.

What Jeff is doing is neither novel nor unique. Using stories to teach and communicate has been done for ages. It is one of the most effective tools ever. A story is relayed, in a manner that engages the listener or reader, and then lessons derived at the end. Sometimes the lesson derivation is explicit (e.g. in formal education), sometimes it is implicit (e.g. in kids movies or books). Either way, the path to a lesson or message is through an entertaining journey of an environment, characters, events and emotions. Whether they are real or fictitious sometimes becomes irrelevant from a learning perspective.

Isn’t this what I did at the start of this post? I made you a part of Jeff’s daily life to convey you a message.

The examples are abound.

Pick up a Time, National Geographic, Fortune or a Wall Street Journal. Any report that is not a live coverage of an event will typically start with a story and then expand to generalize and communicate the key idea. Kids learn their first life lessons through story telling. Historical novels and movies convey their message and learning through stories of people living through those times. A BBC documentary would run through lives or experiences of one or more people to convey its key messages. Motivational speakers and writers use real world stories to motivate – most of the times their own. Most of the TED talks you would hear are ideas wrapped in a story.

Harvard’s ‘Case Studies’ model is an example of an entire formal educational program learning pivoted on stories. A Harvard MBA student would go through a tonnage of case studies in her coursework. A typical class session would consist of a series of case studies – a narration of an event or experience – that the class goes through together, followed by discussion and then the derivation and interpretation of ideas, models and principles. That is obviously a model that is no more just restricted to Harvard anymore.

Stories are even the best way to transport history and culture through generations. That is what grandparents did. This is what happens in museums and historical sites. There were even professional story tellers that use drama and emotion to captivate their audience and relay the message. Even the religious scriptures and books use stories of past times to teach and learn. Stories are even a currency of exchange of messages and ideas across cultures and societies. Everyone can understand stories (That is why foreign language movies just need to be translated and they are good to go!).

Communication is what the listener does. And a listener works better with stories!

NOT YET – and not NO – is your largest enemy

I have frequently written about change. Change sucks because its difficult to get out of our comfort zone, no matter how uncomfortable that comfort zone may be. We sometimes simply change at a superficial level when what is really needed is a Change of Heart. And what we are most scared of is not the final destination but the ensuing chaos as soon as change happens – something that Stockholm experienced as it moved to the right on September 3, 1967.

We are typically convinced that change ultimately leads to something good. If only, we can take and sustain the plunge that leads us to the promised land.

What is most difficult is to take that plunge. And once we do, it’s equally difficult to sustain the plunge in the immediate chaos that follows. Most of us either don’t start at the first hurdle, or fall back at the second.

Lets focus on the first hurdle – not taking the plunge for the fear of what may follow, despite knowing that the promised destination is what we want (and sometimes what we need).

Seth Godin is a fantastic writer, speaker and thinker on entrepreneurship and building communities. His model of tribes for communities is simply awesome, and the book a must read for any leader.

Godin said of this fear of taking plunge, and the core motivation behind it, brilliantly in his Tribes book:

The largest enemy of change and leadership isn’t a “no.” It’s a “not yet.” “Not yet” is the safest, easiest way to forestall change. “Not yet” gives the status quo a chance to regroup and put off the inevitable for just a little while longer. Change almost never fails because it’s too early. It almost always fails because it’s too late.

And he goes on to say about the reasons of not doing and the fear of chaos …

“It’s not time,” “Take it easy,” “Wait and see,” “It’s someone else’s turn” – none of these stalls are appropriate for a leader in search of change. There’s a small price for being too early, but a huge penalty for being too late.”

And then he also gave  probably the world’s simplest yet most powerful relationship to illustrate what the literati would dub as “strike the iron while it’s hot”

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Change always has a context – an optimal window. It’s not abstract, timeless or an invariant. It is a function of time, environment and opportunity.

Success equals to grabbing the opportunity of change at the right time and taking the plunge through chaos. A wait for certainty is a wait forever.

How productive is the knowledge worker?

So here is the million dollar question that everyone asks – how productive is the knowledge worker?

I think the question is way over priced. In some ways, it is misleading; in others its disastrous.

Lets take a quick history tour.

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19th and early 20th century were defined by blue-collar workers. It was the era of manufacturing. Factories were the job hubs. They were the pivots of an economy. It was the ‘Industrial age’. While there sure were knowledge workers (after all someone did design those factories!), their numbers and perceived contribution to the economy were far less than that of their blue-collar brothers.

The blue-collar workers were the center of attention. How they did, how much they ‘produced’ and how well they were ‘utilized’ were the important questions.

And hence, they were the focus of all  improvements and optimizations.

In came Taylorism – the movement to maximize the performance of the worker. It focused on a factory worker, and all that can be done to get maximum output from him. This included removing all inefficiencies, separating job functions, standardizing and optimizing every small action, separating the execution from planning and including scientific measures and processes to improve performance.

Practically, the factor worker was treated as a machine and subjected to same principles and processes for better ‘utilization’ and ‘productivity’ that a machine is treated to.

How much the factory worker was utilized to produce maximum output was the centerpiece of Taylorism.

Make no mistake – there was nothing sinister in Taylorism. It wasn’t a movement of slavery. The very motive was economic. It made sense in the world of manufacturing. All interventions have a context, where they make sense, and others where they don’t. It depends. Taylorism made sense for industrial age.

However, this model of utilization and measurement of productivity just does not make sense in the more complex, chaotic and relatively disorganized world of knowledge workers. Just like you cannot expect an artist to be 100% utilized from 9-5 to produce ‘5  paintings per day’, you cannot expect to enforce utilization on a knowledge worker and except a fixed daily output. If you can, then that knowledge worker is really at the lowest chain of the intellectual work (e.g. the transaction based knowledge workers like call center representatives).

A knowledge worker takes his means of production – his brain – everywhere with him. That is where he works. There is little visibility into what goes on there. There is a visible labor, and there is an invisible labor. A factory worker’s labor is visible; that of a knowledge worker is invisible. What happens in the mind is certainly more chaotic than what happens on an assembly line. Applying the same model for a researcher in a technology lab and a foreman on an assembly line is ridiculous.

Unfortunately, this ridiculous is very common. Knowledge organizations tend to enforce the utilization principle on knowledge workers – forcing them directly or indirectly to be ‘utilized’ in their work to be ‘productive’. This is like applying the principles of one world on a completely different one. It is like driving a desert vehicle in the ocean.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I am not indicating a world where knowledge workers are left on their own daydreaming and wondering with no milestones and accountability. That world is best left for the spiritual zeals.

Knowledge workers work best when they have a very clear vision of where they want to go (note where, not how) and given some constraints (e.g. time, team and a snapshot of the company’s share price). Then they need to be left on their own to figure out the how. Any interactions, engagement or interventions should be to help and facilitate, rather than to enforce and dictate.

The key for knowledge workers is effectiveness, not utilization.

You need to make knowledge workers ‘effective’. Effective – the Drucker way. When they are effective, utilization and productivity will be byproducts. And that too very productive byproducts.

Image: Wikipedia

Anatomy of a Good Decision

An executive in a knowledge organization is making decisions every day. The nature and scope of these decisions vary from small approvals to making strategic long-term choices. But what is always there in an executive’s life is plenty of decision-making. The thing worse than making wrong decision is making no decisions. An executive with a stalled decision-making capability – potentially always in an analysis-paralysis mode – is headed nowhere.

9758917325_93c0df18baDecision are also very obvious and public. You see world leaders announcing their picks for key appointments or a major foreign policy decision very publicly. Business leaders make sure their organization’s key strategic decisions of going into a new market or making an acquisition are known to everyone.

This sometime can make one see decisions as events rather than a process.  Making a decision is the end of a process, not just execution of an event. There is a lot of homework and evaluation done behind every major decision. Announcing or communicating those decisions to stakeholder is the event that potentially completes the process.

So what does that process entail – or should entail?

Evaluating at the highest conceptual level While what may come to an executive’s desk for a decision may be the result of a specific situation – news of a competitor’s buy-out, a bad review of a product, a request for a meeting, an unexpected resignation – it needs to be evaluated at the highest conceptual level. What does this event relate into? Which compartment of the organization does it belong to? An executive, while thoroughly triages the event or situation, connects it to a ‘bigger picture’ and makes a decision based on how he believes and has planned to do in the bigger scheme of things. The response is part of a bigger policy rather than an ad-hoc and arbitrary response to a situation. For example, how does the company generally handle bad news? what is the company’s policy to respond to bad press? how does the resignation of an employee fit into company’s year long employment plans?

This ability to raise from the chaos and smoke of the battlefield to a strategic location with a wider view is critical to effective decisions. There is no such thing as an independent and isolated decision. Every decision fits into a bigger whole.

Evaluating the alternatives Every good decision is made after evaluating the alternatives. Explicitly crafting and thinking them out is critical to a balanced decision. An executive mind’s runs through parallel decision paths before converging on one. It is never a linear process. For example: how would the top three candidates do in a particular role? how does a decision to invest in a particular market compares to alternate decisions to invest in another market or to not investing at all.

The challenge is that these alternatives are mostly not obvious. They have to crafted out, imagined, brought to life and made part of the decision-making process.

Defining actions to implement Drucker said that decision are merely statement of intentions unless they are associated with actions to implement them. At least an action to get started. That is what happens everyday. Decisions are made, declared and hyped – but they never get implemented. Immediately defining and associating a set of actions along with the decision will entail effective implementation. For example a decision to expand a team is associated with release of budget and communication to HR; or a decision to meet an executive from another business unit is immediately followed by sending the request to schedule to his staff.

Communicating the decision Every decision has stakeholders – people who are or can be affected or those who need to be informed. One of the most logical immediate ‘action items’ associated with a decision is to communicate the decision to the stakeholders. For example, updating HR about a decision to hire or informing the company’s shareholders about a strategic business direction. Communication is part of the task.

Follow up Most decisions require a long-term implementation or monitoring. Many decisions get lost in organizational chaos if not properly followed up or checked on for progress and input. All systems and processes move towards chaos – unless they are checked upon, followed through and refined and energized as required.

Take a Thinking Day

“Airplane Days – A couple of years ago I noticed that I got some of my best work done on long intercontinental flights. No Internet access, no distractions, just churning through high priority to-do items. I would finish the flights not only at Inbox 0 but also having completed some “creative” tasks that had long lingered on my list due to lack of contiguous time to complete them: drafting new presentations/documents or deep quantitative analysis of some data/spreadsheet, for example.

When I made the joke that I should start flying internationally more often for productivity reasons, the light bulb went off. Now, at the beginning of each week, I carefully look at my schedule and declare one day (or two half days) to be Airplane Time. I block it out on my shared calendar and treat it as if I were in the air: working out of the office, disabling my phone, and shutting off network connections on my laptop. The rest of the days are for meetings, etc. but this blocked out time each week is my most productive by far.”  – Quora

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Sometime back, I wrote about the Long Walks. The key idea was that you need to have contiguous, uninterrupted blocks of time where you focus on a single project or task to be most productive. Having ‘long enough’ time for an activity helps you coalesce all the different data pieces hanging around your head and outside and bring out aspects and issues that simply is not possible if you are in a short-burst mode. That is why I called it the Long Walk model.

This is exactly what is being quoted above as an excellent tool to achieve the same goal.

John Donahoe, CEO eBay, takes what he calls a ‘Thinking Day’ every six months to ‘beat the chaos’. John wrote:

“I have found that one of the simplest tools for learning and enhancing my performance is to regularly reflect on how to spend my time. Every six months I go through a process where I step back, contemplate what I have learned over the previous six months, and then adjust my focus to ensure I am spending my time and energy in ways where I can create the greatest impact.”

It is essentially a process of zooming out from the current reality, rising above the daily fires and chaos and reflect on what is happening. It is like a military commander climbing the most strategic height of a battlefield to see what is happening. The visibility, perspective and insight that he will get from that vantage point is invaluable. We all need to such visibility and insights.

“I just finished one of my thinking days last month. I filled a white board with my assessment of the external market and how we were doing against our priorities for the first six months of this year. As frequently happens, once I had written everything out in one place, I found it useful to step back and look at things from a holistic perspective. I emerged with new insights and with greater clarity about what’s most important. To remind myself of these insights, I wrote them out, as I always do, into my personal priorities file and now carry this file with me everywhere I go.”

This is one of the best productivity and effectiveness tools. It helps dodge off the daily fires we have to fight. It makes you think deep and long enough to get the best use of your time. As Drucker said that an executive has just about 25% of his time in his control.

Taking a regular thinking day out is the best use of that time!