Tuesday, January 27, 2009

It's Your Ship

I saw this book (It's Your Ship) in a Barnes and Noble and the title and cover attracted me. So I picked it up and read the back, thought it was interesting, and later grabbed it for the Kindle. I do still buy books from B&N, but for friends and family. I prefer my books on the Kindle.

As I started reading this book, I thought this was a book that everyone in management should read. And everyone that is a worker should recommend this to your managers, directors, VPs, and especially C-level people.

That thought hasn't wavered and now that I've finished it, I think more than ever this is a great management book that really describes well how you can lead. In the military or in business.

This is the story of Captain Michael Abrashoff's tour on the USS Benfold. He took over this ship, his first command, and a ship that was below average in many ways. After he received the command, he turned around the ship, making it the highest rated ship in the Navy. And not just in terms of getting people to perform as qualified sailors, but he reduced turnover, getting almost all of his sailors to re-enlist, he improved morale, lowered accidents, and really built an amazing group of people.

In many ways this reminded me of how great JD Edwards was to work for, though I think I recognize more flaws in their operations that Captain Abrashoff points out.

The book covers a variety of aspects of leadership, usually with stories about issues and problems encountered and how the Captain worked at it. Granted the job on a ship is different than a company, but with more serious consequences, however there are a lot of similarities.

There two big things I've gotten from the book. One is that you should empower your people, trusting them to make decisions, which is an old idea, but one that many managers overlook. The second is that you need to act quickly and decisively on issues, not letting them fester. In your actions, you have to show that people have to take responsibility, but that they also deserve a second chance.

Too many managers and attempted-leaders try to control workers, telling them what to do but not sending the message with their actions. Captain Abrashoff illustrates where he found ways to show people he meant what he said and I liked that.

I would have liked to hear more about things that didn't work since those mistakes can really help us grow, and there is a little at the end where he talks about problems he created with his policies, but they are problems with peers, not problems with his decisions. It's a motivational book, so I understand some of that, but it would have been a great learning experience to see mistakes being made and how they are corrected, or you back out of your actions.

I highly recommend this book.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Book Review: Big Brown

The book is actually Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS and it was written by a retired UPSer that spent his whole career there. I picked up this book after being on the Underground Tour in Seattle. As an aside that was neat, but the guide mentioned UPS was started in Seattle delivering drugs (I never knew either one of them).

While we were in Seattle at a Barnes and Noble, I saw this on the shelf and took a picture of it on my phone. I don’t mind supporting Barnes and Noble, but I also don’t want to carry more books than I have to and this was a reminder to get a copy on my Kindle later.

The book starts with a bit of the author’s career and how he came to work at UPS and love it. He definitely shows his enthusiasm for the company and culture and his admiration for the way that the company is run.

From there it goes back and talks a bit about Jim Casey, the founder of the company, or one of the founders and how he got his start as a kid in Seattle delivering packages for retail stores at the beginning of the 1900s. Some interesting things I’ve learned:

  • Prior to the late 20th century (sometime in the 70s), only the USPS could deliver packages person to person. UPS fought for exceptions state by state.
  • UPS started delivering retail packages, becoming more efficient than the retailers and putting their fleets out of business.
  • UPS was a private company, employee owner, until 1999.
  • UPS gave out stock for most of it’s history to employees and managers.
  • Very few employees were hired above package handlers.
  • The founder, Jim Casey, never married and lived in hotels for most of his life as he traveled and ran the company.

I recommended this to my business partner, Andy Warren, and he wrote a review as well. He didn’t like it as much as I did (I think), but it’s a good read and I think it’s a good company.  I’d like to build a company like UPS, though not exactly. I’m not sure I completely agree with all the things said about the company, but they have done things the right way from what I’ve seen.

The book isn’t all a rah-rah book on UPS. There are definitely some issues and the author does a good job of bringing them out, showing that he doesn’t like it, but it’s a part of the history.

I know my delivery guy loves the company and I need to see if he’s read the book.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I saw Paul Kenny of Ocean Learning speak about sales least year at the Business of Software Conference. I thought he was great and so when we were talking about how we should present our case for changes in my group to management, I thought of Paul. I was going to be in the UK, Paul lives there, and so I suggested him.

My boss jumped on it as he had been at BoS 2008, and yesterday Paul came to speak to my group of 6 people. I wasn't sure what to expect since this was supposed to be a bit longer and was surprised that we spent the first 45 minutes or so talking about our priorities and what we wanted to present while Paul sat there and took notes. I almost interrupted a few times and I'm glad I didn't because apparently this was what Paul wanted.

Once we'd come up with our list of priorities, Paul took over the show and started to talk about influence. What it is, how you get it, and what it means. He sees it as a state, meaning you have it or don't, but persuasion is how you use your influence to deliver a message. It was fascinating in that he talked about the stages of relationships and how people form them and create influence. A lot of his talk related well to dating as well as business relationships and he has a great way to of teaching by asking questions and forcing you to interact with him.

I'm not entirely sure of everything that was presented in the two hours, but I did learn a few things. One is that we need to present our case after having assumed they will say yes, and work backwards through all the questions we think they'll ask. We should answer them proactively in our presentations.

We should also work on building relationships outside of the presentation. Get to know the people that we work with and ask things of. Or might ask them of us. We definitely realized we were approaching our presentation the wrong way. The last thing I got was that it pays to understand the type of person you're presenting to, and Paul had a few times. Is this a conservative or radical person? Are they a big picture person or tiny detail person? Are they seeking pleasure (looking for the good) or pain avoiding (avoiding issues)?

I can't recommend Paul enough. He's the only motivational person that talks sales I've enjoyed listening to and I think he's worth hiring if you can to talk to any of you employees.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Who Do We Choose to Follow?

Think about your career and the managers, and potentially leaders, that you’ve had in your life. Think about life in general and who do you admire, who have you modeled yourself after or who you wanted to follow in sports, in a hobby, in life, etc.

I’ve heard about, read about or seen many people on TV, in newspapers, books, and more. Some of them I admire, most I don’t, but as I learn more about some of them, there are always some I like that I start to question whether they’re good leaders. To be fair, someone can be a good leader in public, or in some roles and have a mess of a personal life. They’re not necessarily related.

I started thinking about this after reading a post on herds. No, I still don’t like horses, but it’s my wife’s blog and I follow it just to see what she’s doing. I’m interested in her, not the horses and it helps me to better keep in touch with her.

Everyone needs someone to follow. We have to decide who inspires or motivates us, but do you know why any particular person does so? As I read about horses, I’m not sure that we’re much different. We feel drawn to one person or another, or some group, and we don’t always know why.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Honoring a Contest

Over the last six months or so, Pepsi has been running a PepsiStuff promotion on many of their products. They had codes printed inside bottle caps, packaging, etc, that you could enter at their PepsiStuff.com website. Each code was worth a point or two and you could trade in your points for various things like caps, shirts, and MP3s. There were larger prizes, but I never got close to those.

Typically I’d buy a Diet Pepsi instead of a Diet Coke to get the code, I’d save them and enter them in the site and use them to download Amazon MP3s. They had a great link with the Amazon site and for 5 points I could get an MP3. That worked out great for my son as he got a bunch of songs for his Zune that he wanted and I got a few here and there that I’ve wanted.

Just after the new year I took a few caps that I’d gotten while skiing and went to enter them into the site. I got the notice that the promotion had ended and I could send away by mail (mail!?!?!?!) for coupons. I wasn’t overly concerned about the caps in my hand, but I was a little annoyed as I had 12 or 13 points at Amazon already and could have gotten a couple more songs. I immediately went to Amazon, but sure enough I couldn’t “buy” songs with my points.

The $1.60 worth of songs isn’t much, but it creates a bit of bad-will between myself and Pepsi. Their product isn’t different enough from Coke’s and now they’ve annoyed me. I know the promotion has to end, but they could have easily let my points exist for a month or a week beyond the end of the redemption. What’s more annoying is stores are still full of products with the Pepsi stuff labels. They manufactured too much.

What should they do?

First, I’m not sure this hurts Pepsi a lot. It annoys people, but only until the next contest and we’re used to it. I see this stuff all the time with local businesses.

But they’re missing an opportunity here. They could easily generate a lot of goodwill in a few ways.

  1. Extend the promotion. Get another splash and base the new date on the amount of product in the store.
  2. Ping people with points in their accounts a week before it ends. They could get a boost in sales here.
  3. Let people have an extra few weeks to redeem and/or spend.

None of the these would break the bank for Pepsi and they might give them a boost.

Running a contest is always a tricky thing. You cut into margins to try and boost your visibility and hopefully gain more market share and profit in the end. But the contest has to produce goodwill to be effective. There will always be a percentage of people that want something for free and then will never come back, but you can get a good percentage of people interested and if they’re happy, then they might continue to use your service/site.

I think Pepsi made a mistake here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

There's More than One Way

I've followed Joel Spolsky's writings for a long time and he's a programmer and business owner that I admire a bit. I think he goes about his work the right way, and he has done a good job of building his business. Can you duplicate his methods? Perhaps, but he has some advantages as a thought leader in the software development world and there is only room for so many of those.

I saw his column in Inc magazine for November 2008 and it struck me as very interesting. He talked about a new project he had in 2008 that he tackled in a way contrary to the way that he normally does business. The project was StackOverflow and it's a neat idea. I like some things about it, not others, but his talk about how the project was evolved was different from all the rules that he's written about and implemented at his company, Fog Creek Software.

What's the lesson here?

There are a couple, and none of them mean you should succomb to anarchy and abandon your rules for running your business.

First, I think that you should hire good people. I think the primary reason for the initial success of StackOverflow was that Joel worked with a great programmer (or couple of programmers). Some of the passion was probably that this was a startup-type project, but I think a lot was that Jeff and the other programmers were good at what they did.

Second, it's OK to break some of your rules, or even all of your rules, but in a controlled environment. Don't bet the business by changing everything, but set up a skunk-works type project or R&D environment and cut some people loose. Google's 20% projects have resulted in some interesting things, like Gmail, though the majority might not have amounted to anything. That's OK, just allow for some failure. One great idea can be worth it.

Third, Be open to changes and if you see something working in an experiment, start to roll it out to more parts of the business. At the same time if things aren't working, be strong enough to stop them and move on.

Business is a lot of luck, but it also consists of hard word, taking advantage of opportunities, looking for opportunities, and reacting (and learning) to what is happening.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Future Creep

Trying to decide what features to put into a system is always a hard thing to do. Often we’re guessing about which things will bring us an ROI soon, and how many resources we put into them. This is one of the reasons that I favor a fairly rapid change rate in your application.

37 Signals posted a note about future creep, and how you want to be careful about spending time on future features, things you’re not doing now, but might do in the future. It brings up some good points, and things to think about, but I think they might be getting a little too hyper-agile.

Spending a few minutes thinking about things, debating them, perhaps determining where they architecturally might fit in can prevent a bunch of costs (in time and resources) down the line. However you don't want to get bogged down into designing around every future possibility.

Instead, make sure that you are moving forward and letting your system evolve as it gets used. You'll learn things, things you anticipated will come up, some you didn't will crop up as well, but likely a lot of what you worried about will never come to pass.

Note that this doesn't just mean technology. It means any process.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Be Creative

We don’t have a lot of creativity in advertising, at least not that I see. The same old things are used over and over, making it easy on the advertising group, but not necessarily that effective.

I saw this ad at 37 Signals, and I’ll repeat the image here.

Not the best message, but for a local group, that’s pretty creative, catchy, and probably gets people to stop and look at the ad.