Link: One Simple Way to Eliminate Distractions in a Board Meeting

The best board meetings are discussions and debates about the business yet many executive teams spent their time wanting to walk through hours of slides on how great they’re doing. Humans do much better when they’re participating than when they’re being lectured to. The most value you’ll get out of your board is when they’re speaking and offering you feedback and experiences from others companies in which they’re involved.

I recommend that executive teams send materials out 72 hours in advance. I recommend that CEOs do 1–1 calls with board members prior to the meeting to walk through the high-level financials. And I recommend that boards have 2–3 strategic topics that they consider during the in-person meeting. If you run your board this way you’ll maximize the time you have together as a group and keep your board engaged.

This need to “pre-sure” is super annoying – what’s the point of the meeting then? – but key to any meeting. The, point though, is to use the meeting to discuss and decide, not to just be informed.

Also:

Final bit of advice. Some teams print out materials and hand out a printed binder during the board meeting. Don’t be this team. While it’s tempting to have a bible for your board members you’ll just enable them to “scroll ahead” and look at future slides when they’re bored. If you serve up their distraction then you only have yourselves to blame when they don’t pay attention.

Sometimes board members print out your decks or financials in advance and bring their own print outs. It’s super easy to politely say, “If you wouldn’t mind I’d love it if you would leave your notes in your bag. I don’t want to be controversial but I would love to try and have everybody fully engaged in the discussion and to do so I want to make sure everybody is on the same page at the same time.

It takes some bravery to tell your bosses (the board) what to do, to be more professional and polite. The results are probably enjoyable by both sides of the table, though.

Source: One Simple Way to Eliminate Distractions in a Board Meeting

Link: Bulls**t Jobs (Part 1 of ∞)

“It’s too soon to have a good sample size. But it seems to usually work. I think it works because there is nobody at Mr. Smith’s workplace – maybe nobody in the entire world – who cares whether Mr. Smith brings a chair into work. Somebody wrote up a procedure for employees using special chairs, so that they’re not the sort of cowboys who make decisions without procedures. Somebody else feels like they have to enforce it, so that they’re not the sort of rebel who flouts procedures. But nobody cares.”
Original source: Bulls**t Jobs (Part 1 of ∞)

Link: Why Do Meeting Cancellations Say “I’m Giving You Back 30 Minutes … You’re Welcome”?

‘If the meeting was for your benefit the organizer would not word the cancellation that way. That’s why you don’t hear “I don’t think we need to interview you so we’re giving you back 30 minutes. You’re welcome.” or “we’re canceling your parole hearing so you can go back to your cell and enjoy an extra 15 minutes. You’re welcome”.’
Original source: Why Do Meeting Cancellations Say “I’m Giving You Back 30 Minutes … You’re Welcome”?

Link: Reaching Peak Meeting Efficiency

‘Whiteboards are a tool used by a certain type of person to “take over” a meeting. Simply going to the board and picking up a pen changes the whole dynamic of meeting ownership, agenda, control and creates a power-dynamic that is pretty hostile to collaboration. The worst part of whiteboards is that some people just don’t have the ego or personality to go to a whiteboard so they will never contribute that way. The real problem is that whatever gets written on a whiteboard can have more weight than what is said by others or than it deserves simply because it was “written”. I’ve seen whole product positioning statements upended because someone stood up at a whiteboard and rearranged the 3×3 and bullied everyone by controlling the board.’

A whole about corporate meetings in the rest of the article.
Original source: Reaching Peak Meeting Efficiency

Link: Write it down

“Whenever someone asks me to do something that I think seems ill-conceived in some way, I ask them to write it down. That’s it. Because writing is high effort. Making sentences is the easy bit, it’s the thinking I want them to do. By considering their request it slows them down. Maybe 30% of the time or something, they come back and say ‘oh, that thing I asked you to do, I’ve had a think and it’s fine, we don’t need to do it’.

“This little method isn’t about doing less. Well, actually it is. It’s about doing less important things instead of important things. It’s not about being obstructive. I certainly don’t ask someone ‘why?’ five times (which is a shortcut to being called a smart-arse in my experience). This is about a light-touch way of asking someone to slow down.”
Original source: Write it down

Link: For Women and Minorities to Get Ahead, Managers Must Assign Work Fairly

“For many women, the disparity in assignments comes back to what we’ve called maternal wall bias — a set of negative assumptions about mothers’ competence and commitment. After having a child, mothers come back to work to find that their best projects and clients have been reassigned to colleagues. In some cases, women report that it takes years to get back to the type of work they were doing before taking maternity leave. As a white female lawyer reported, “I made partner in the shortest time of any female. Things were great. I had my son. I worked part-time during leave and came back in nine weeks. My work was gone. It has taken two years and a change in focus to get back to the level I was at.”
Original source: For Women and Minorities to Get Ahead, Managers Must Assign Work Fairly

A real corporate meeting, avoiding triggering The Boss

This anecdote from a story on Sears struggles is spot on strategic thinking for most corporate meeting:

There, two mid-level employees were preparing a presentation for the CEO, Eddie Lampert, when their boss rushed in with some last-minute advice.

On a chart pad he wrote three words.

“He looks at the presenters and says, ‘Do not say these words to that guy,'” according to a former Sears executive who described the meeting to Business Insider. “That guy” meant Lampert, who would soon appear on a giant projector screen at the front of the room, beamed in live from a home office inside a $38 million Florida estate – 1,400 miles away from headquarters.

The pad with the three words was out of sight of Lampert’s video feed. One of the words on it was “consumer.”

The stakes were high. If any of those words were uttered in front of Lampert, the two presenters would “get shredded” by the CEO, whose frequent tirades had fostered a climate of fear among the company’s most senior managers, said another person – this one a former vice president.

These two and other executives say “consumer” can trigger Lampert. He wants employees to instead refer to shoppers as “members,” which is his term for customers who are enrolled in Sears’ Shop Your Way rewards program.

It was at that moment, as the executive attending the meeting watched fellow employees anxiously censor themselves in front of Lampert, that he realized he needed to flee the sinking 123-year-old company.

That perfectly captures how much energy you need to spend on seemingly ridiculous details to be successful in corporate environments, not only in caustic ones, but pretty functional ones as well. I love chronically this type of tacit corporate knowledge.

The rest of the article is great background on how older companies are struggling to modernize with plenty of anonymized sources telling gritty, but helpful stories.

7 BigCo Anti-patterns — white collars doing it wrong

Awesome corporate clipart from geralt.

To wrap up this little run of Thriving in BigCo’s posts, here’s a quick listing of seven, often sad and unhelpful bad practices I’ve noticed people and large organizations doing. Try to avoid them.

  1. Sad bag of slides — you see a person uses the same basic slides in their presentations over and over again, trying to argue for the same point each time they get an audience. They may put together new pitches, slightly masked, but you end up seeing those same old stuff. At some point, you can time how long it will take this person to suggest their idea, pull out their sad slides and go for it.
  2. No free coffee — the company doesn’t even understand the basics of the culture they want, e.g., software developers need free coffee and will be more prone to leave. Cf. “penny-wise, pound foolish.”
  3. Strategy by gratuitous differentiation — thinking that the way to compete is to do something your competitors don’t do…without understanding why they don’t do it. For example, back in the “what do we do about cloud?!” days (~2010–2014 for the first wave) many large IT vendors would want to compete with Amazon’s cloud services by being “more enterprise.” Instead of just jumping in the first blue-cloud-ocean you find, you need to carefully understand why Amazon may not do these “enterprise” things, e.g., they cost a lot more and kill margin.
  4. “What, you don’t like money?” — despite a business throwing off a lot of cash, you don’t want to acquire it. Like worrying about buying an otherwise successful software company because they have a large mainframe business…a business that generates good revenue at large margins with a captive market, so you should keep it and run it if you like money.
  5. 40/4 = 10, or, “4-up” — to reduce the number of slides in a presentation, you put the content of four slides on one. This “reduces” your 40 slide presentation to just 10 slides!
  6. Pay people to ignore them — BigCo’s love hiring new employees, paying them well, and then rarely listening to them. Instead, you hire outsiders and consultants who say similar things, but are listened to. In fact, the first task of any good management consultant team is to go interview all those bright, but ignored, employees you have and ask them what they’d do. The lesson is to track how many ideas come internally vs. externally and, rather than just blame your people for low internal idea generation, ask yourself if you’re just not listening.
  7. Death by Sync — the price of communication is high and you have to be judicious about how far in debt you go. Instead of doing this, most companies spend lots of time “syncing” with other groups and people in the company rather than just doing things. Part of what upper management needs to do is establish a culture and processes that prevent death-by-sync. Also known as “hanging yourself with pre-wire.”

And, if you missed them, here are the longer ones:

Thinking wrong about knowledge workers screws up their productivity

…or: “Knowledge work is a lot more like cloud than traditional IT.”

Of course, it is most certainly not in the interest of knowledge workers to go to their bosses and declare that they have “spare capacity.” At best, they might then be judged in performance reviews as having an easy job and being not very productive. At worst, the bosses might decide that these employees could be cut. Thus it is to every knowledge worker’s benefit to look busy all the time. There is always a report to write, a memo to generate, a consultation to run, a new idea to explore. And it is in support of this perceived survival imperative that the second driver of productivity—knowledge transfer—gets perverted.

The rest of the piece is good stuff. Notice how much of the thinking follows the same pattern of opex vs. capex thinking of cloud, and the somewhat similar notions of continuous delivery. I’d also add that if you follow a small batch (smaller amounts of work delivered more frequently, rather than big projects delivered once), you’re given more opportunity to re-allocate your “knowledge workers” to different projects. As the author points out, this means you have to rejigger how HR/roles and responsibilities work; staff policies don’t currently favor moving people from project to project like you see in (management) consulting.

Couple this with the “you need to constantly be coming up with new businesses” pressure from Transient Advantage, and you have good operating theory.

The media doesn’t know what they’re talking about w/r/t Yahoo, a study in i-banker rhetoric

The notion that some in the media – who usually have no specific knowledge about Yahoo – have recklessly put forward that Yahoo is “unfixable” and that it should be simply “chopped up” and handed over for nothing to private equity or strategies is insulting to all long-term public shareholders.

This presentation is an example of many things we discuss on Software Defined Talk around large, struggling companies and the way they’re covered. Among other rhetorical highlights:

  • Check out how they make their case
  • Use visuals and charts
  • The informal nature of their language, e.g., they use the word “stuff” frequently
  • Their citations, e.g., citing themselves (I always love a good “Source: Me!”) and citing “Google Images”

These things, in my view, are neither good or bad: I’m more interested in the study of the rhetoric which I find fascinating for investment banker documents/presentations like this.

Not only that, it’s a classic “Word doc accidentally printed in landscape.” The investment community can’t help themselves.

As another note, no need to be such a parenthetical dick, below, to prove the point of a poor M&A history, just let the outcomes speak for themselves, not the people who do them.

img_4051

They actually do a better job in the very next slide, but that kind to pettiness doesn’t really help their argument. (Their argument is: she’s acquiring her friends.)

This is a type of reverse halo effect: we assume that tree standing goofiness has something to do with the business: an ad hominem attack. But, I think most billionaires probably have picture of themselves in trees, wearing those silly glove shoes, roasting their own coffee, only eating meat they kill themselves, or any number of other affectations that have nothing to do with profit-making, good or bad.

A presentation is just a document that has been printed in landscape mode

I’m always wanting to do a talk or write a series of items on the white-collar toolchain, or surviving in big companies. Here’s one principal about presentations in corporate settings.

Slides must stand on their own

Much presentation wisdom of late has revolved around the actual event of a speaker talking, giving the presentation. In a corporate setting, the actual delivery of the presentation is not the primary purpose of a presentation. Instead, a presentation is used to facility coming to a decision; usually you’re laying out a case for a decision you want the company to support. Once that decision is made, the presentation is often used as the document of record, perhaps being updated to reflect the decision in question better.

As a side-note, if your presentation doesn’t argue for a specific, “actionable” decision, you’re probably doing it wrong. For example, don’t just “put it all on the table” without suggesting what to do about it.

Think of presentations as documents which have been accidentally printed in landscape and create them as such. You will likely not be given the chance to go through your presentation from front to end like you would at a conference, You’ll be interrupted, go back and forth, and most importantly, end up emailing the presentation around to people who will look at it without you presenting.

You should therefore make all slides consumable without you being there. This leads to the use of McKinsey titles (titles that are one-liners explaining the point you’re making) and slides that are much denser than conference slides. The presentation should have a story-line, an opening summary of the points you want to make, and a concluding summary of what the decision should be (next steps, launching a new project, the amount needed for your budget, new markets to enter, “and therefore we should buy company X,” etc.).

This also gives rise to “back-up” slides which are not part of the core story-line buy provide additional, appendix-like information for reference both during the presentation meeting and when others look at the presentation on their own. You should also put extensive citations in footnotes with links so that people consuming the presentation can fact check you; bald claims and figures will be defeated easily, nullifying your whole argument to come to your desired decision.

Also remember that people will take your slides and use them in other presentations, this is fine. And, of course, if successful, your presentation will likely be used as the document of record for what was decided and what the new “plan” was. It will be emailed to people who ask what the “plan” is and it must be able to communicate that accordingly.

Remember: in most corporate settings, a presentation is just a document that has been printed in landscape mode.

So you want to become a software company?

Hey, I’ve not only seen this movie before, I’ve did some script treatments:

Chief Executive Officer John Chambers is aggressively pursuing software takeovers as he seeks to turn a company once known for Internet plumbing products such as routers into the world’s No. 1 information-technology company.

Cisco is primarily targeting developers of security, data-analysis and collaboration tools, as well as cloud-related technology, Chambers said in an interview last month.

Good for them. Cisco has consistinly done a good job to fill out its portfolio and is far from the one-trick pony people think it is (last I checked, they do well with converged infrastructure, or integrated systems, or whatever we’re supposed to call it now). They actually have a (clearly from lack of mention in this piece) little known about software portfolio already.

In case anyone’s interested, here’s some tips:

  1. Don’t buy already successful companies, they’ll soon be old tired companeis – software follows a strange loop. Unlike hardware where (more or less) we keep making the same products better, in softare we like to re-write the same old things every five years or so, throwing out any “winners” from the previous regime. Examples here are APM, middleware, analytics, CRM, web browsers…well…every category except maybe Microsoft Office (even that is going bonkers in the email and calendaring space, and you can see Microsoft “re-writing” there as well [at last, thankfully]). You want to buy, likely, mid-stage startups that have proven that their product works and is needed in the market. They’ve found the new job to be done (or the old one and are re-writing the code for it!) and have a solid code-base, go-to-market, and essentially just need access to your massive resources (money, people, access to customers, and time) to grow revenue. Buy new things (which implies you can spot old vs. new things).

  2. Get ready to pay huge multipules – when you identify a “new thing” you’re going to pay a huge multipile 5x, 10x, 20x, even more. You’re going to think that’s absurd and that you can find a better deal (TIBCO, Magic, Actuate, etc.). Trust me, in software there are no “good deals” (except once in a lifetime buys like the firesale fro Remedy). You don’t walk into Tiffany’s and think you’re going to get a good deal, you think you’re going to make your spouse happy.

  3. “Drag” and “Synergies” – not gonna happen on any scale that helps make the business case, move on. The effort it takes to “integrate” products and, more importantly, strategy and go-to-market, together to enabled these dreams of a “portfolio” is massive and often doesn’t pan out. Are the products written in the exactly the same programming language, using exactly the same frameworks and runtimes? Unless you’re Microsoft buying a .Net-based company, the answer is usually “hell no!” Any business “synergies” are equally troublesome: unless they already exist (IBM is good at buying small and mid-companies who have proven out synergies by being long-time partners), it’s a long-shot that you’re going to create any synergies. Evaluate software assets on their own, stand-alone, not as fitting into a portfolio. You’ve been warned.

  4. Educate your sales force. No, really. REALLY! – you’re thinking your sales force is going to help you sell these new products. They “go up the elevator” instead of down so will easily move these new SKUs. Yeah, good luck, buddy. Sales people aren’t that quick to learn (not because they’re dumb, at all, but because that’s not what you pay and train them for). You’ll need to spend a lot of time educating them and also your field engineers. Your sales force will be one of your biggest assets (something the aquired company didn’t have) so baby them and treat them well. Train them.

  5. Start working, now, on creating a software culture, not aquiring one – the business and processes (“culture”) of software is very different and particular. Do you have free coffee? Better get it. (And if that seems absurd to you, my point is proven.) Do you get excited about ideas like “fail fast”? Study and understand how software businesses run and what they do to attract and retain talent. We still don’t really understand how it all works after all these years and that’s the point: it’s weird. There are great people (like my friend Israel Gat) who can help you, there’s good philosophy too: go read all of Joel’s early writing of Joel’s as a start, don’t let yourself get too distracted by Paul Graham (his is more about software culture for startups, who you are not – Graham-think is about creating large valuations, not extracting large profits), and just keep learning. I still don’t know how it works or I’d be pointing you to the right URL. Just like with the software itself, we completly forget and re-write the culture of software canon about every five years. Good on us. Andrew has a good check-point from a few years ago that’s worth watching a few times.

  6. Read and understand Escape Velocity – this is the only book I’ve ever read that describes what it’s like to be an “old” technology company and actually has practical advice on how to survive. Understand how the cash-cow cycle works and, more importantly for software, how to get senior leadership to support a cycle/culture of business reneweal.

There’s more, of course, but that’s a good start.

Finally, I spotted a reference to Stall Points in one of Chambers’ talks the other day which is encouraging. Here’s one of the better charts you can print out and put on your wall to look at between meetings:

That charts all types of companies. It’s hard to renew yourself, it’s not going to be easy. Good luck!

Book Review: Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies

Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies: Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies: Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior by Suzanne Robertson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
As with most pattern books, this is one you flip through in an hour and then save it to refer back to. The strength of software management and development pattern books is describing problems that commonly occur, not really telling you how to fix them. Thus, hey tend to be frustrating because you’re left thinking, “how am I going to get this to work in my organization?” There is a certain level of detail in some of these patterns that’s refreshing, but most are just brief outlines of a software management or team-work problem.Still, they’re extremely helpful things to keep in mind which you may be forgetting (“The Empty Chair”) or no longer think applies to you (“Young Pups Old Dogs”), helpful advice if you must do it (“Offshore Follies”), to some that can be reduced to a clever quip, as in “War Room” where DeMarco says, “I’m beginning to think that a project not worth a war room may be a project not worth doing.”There’s solid advice in here, but the 0th pattern is “Be humble: never assume you have this shit figured out.” After that, many of them are extremely good advice.

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