Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Business Fables - The Spaghetti chefs

Once upon a time there were three chefs in a kitchen, all making spaghetti.

The first chef, Jane, was a meticulous planner, and spent nearly two hours reading the recipe book and gathering the right ingredients.  She meticulously took measurements throughout the cooking process and made corrections due to a multitude of factors - altitude, temperature, time etc.  She knew exactly when the pasta would be done, and at the appointed time took it out and served it for the customer.

The second Chef, Wayne, did some preparation based on his experience in cooking spaghetti, and  near then end of the estimated time he took some spaghetti out and threw it against the wall to see if it was done.  The first two pieces were not done, but the third stuck to the wall, telling him it was "al dente", and ready to serve to the customer.

The last chef, Charles, did no preparation at all, and wasn't sure exactly how long the spaghetti would take, so he had three separate pots boiling, all with different amounts and types of spaghetti, and regularly took some out of each and flung it against the wall.  The difficulty was that Charles couldn't actually tell what was sticking, due to all the overlapping spaghetti, and his focus being split between all the different pots.  In the end he ran  out of time and just served up what he had - three different types of spaghetti in one bowl, all at various stages of being cooked.

Can you guess which one worked out for the customer?  That's right - Wayne was able to serve the best spaghetti, in the shortest time, at the lowest cost.  Wayne knew that once he did the initial planning, there were so many different factors at play in the kitchen, the best thing to do what test the spaghetti every few minutes and serve it when it stuck to the wall.

Jane took far too long, the customer was getting annoyed because of the delay, and when the pasta was finally served, it wasn't perfect even though Jane thought she had planned for the perfect outcome. She wasn't able to serve many customers due to the time she took to prepare the spaghetti each time.

Charles came out the worst because the customer didn't really get what he wanted, none of the spaghetti was done, and Charles wasted lots of materials and took up too much kitchen space.

When introducing a new product, or even trying a new marketing campaign, many people use the term "Throwing it against the wall and seeing what sticks" as a negative i.e. sloppy and lacking in planning and preparation, but it's exactly what needs to be done to get the best outcome each time.

Be just like Wayne- do enough planning and have a feedback loop to ensure that you are on the right path.  For a new product introduction this is a prototype product used to engage development customers, leading to a minimum viable product and (hopefully) rapid customer adoption.  And if the spaghetti doesn't stick, then throw out the whole batch and start again.

The opposite of the MVP is what Charles did - not really knowing what would come out and unable to focus on creating a single spaghetti that the customer wanted - if you split your focus between different approaches it's impossible to discover which one (if any is working).

So be like a great chef - do the required planning, but start cooking quickly and get feedback to ensure that your dish is ready for the customer.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Core Communication Skills for Entrepreneurs

Last week I received the following email, and thought that the answer to the question would make a great blog post:

I am doing a project for school and wanted to know if you could send what you consider to be the most critical core communication skills for Entrepreneurs?

Self-awareness is a critical skill of successful entrepreneurs - the ability to know what you are good at and not-so-good-at.  This will let you know what skills need to come into the team, what type of people you'll need as advisors and board members, where you need an education program, etc. I really benefited from an executive coach while at Citrix - having someone independent to point out your strengths and weaknesses is humbling, but effective if you really want to be successful. 

Being able to effectively communicate both internally and externally is obviously important and this another another area where coaching is beneficial. Citrix had a policy where all speakers at the company events had to work with a presentation coach (in my day, Michelle Murphy from InnoPro), both on the actual presentation deck and the delivery. I'm still amazed at the number of extremely boring and confusing presentations that I sit through at almost every conference, especially where working with a coach like Michelle would have made such a huge difference (for a relatively small investment in time and money).

There is enough information around on how to give effective presentations.  Just remember that the key is to understand your audience - what is their goal, likes/dislikes, background etc. You need to be able to repackage the story for difference audiences - I use the book "The Art of the Start" as a guideline for communicating to different groups.  When communicating externally, especially in the early days, listening is key - this is an area where I have had to improve my skills - letting people know that you are really listening to what they are saying, and valuing the feedback.

As an example, last week I presented a pitch for my new company to an early stage VC firm.  I reached out to people who knew the person for feedback on what worked best for him - then used Linkedin to understand his background.  I then met with another VC friend prior to the meeting, and went through the presentation and deck (resulting in some major changes).  Lastly, after the meeting (which went extremely well), I immediately modified the deck to reflect feedback and content that would have answered some questions.  In a military context this is would be "gathering intelligence" before an operation - never go into a situation blind, and use all the tools at your disposal.

Being able to communicate with passion and conviction is obviously key - I know one CEO whose lack of confidence is infecting the whole organization with doubt.  Entrepreneurs are generally comfortable with a lack of clarity of the future and are happy to work things out as they happen, but many groups need more certainly. So it's OK to have doubts, but keep them to yourself or identify them in a clinical way in the presentation "risks" slide.

Similarly, being an entrepreneur must be capable of of "bold action" i.e. the ability to take risks and push their ideas firmly.  Understand that everyone in the world is a human being, even billionaires and big company CEOs.  The first billionaire I ever met was Ray Noorda in a supermarket in Utah where he was pushing his shopping trolley and buying the weekly groceries.  When you see that CEO who could help you, push aside those fears, go up and introduce yourself, and ask for the help you need.  Or just make a contact. Nobody succeeded by being shy and unknown.

Lastly, being able to build and lead a team is going to be the difference between success and failure. Leadership is not management and management is not leadership.  Leadership can be summed up simply as the ability to get people to do something willingly that they don't want to do. A more comprehensive definition comes from Ann Marie E. McSwain Assistant Professor at Lincoln University:

"leadership is about capacity: the capacity of leaders to listen and observe, to use their expertise as a starting point to encourage dialogue between all levels of decision-making, to establish processes and transparency in decision-making, to articulate their own value and visions clearly but not impose them. Leadership is about setting and not just reacting to agendas, identifying problems, and initiating change that makes for substantial improvement rather than managing change."

However, I would somewhat argue that the mission of Entrepreneurs is to impose their own value and vision - A manager fits into the world that has been established, while an entrepreneur attempts to change the world to fit them.  I often quote the words of George S Patton, someone well known for passion, bold action, and leadership:

"Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way."