Friday, October 17, 2014

Three Keys to Unlocking Answers

No one has ever discovered the answer to anything without first asking a question.  Self-evident, maybe, but not necessarily simple.  There is a difference between asking good questions and bad, between nodding your head responses and actually hearing the answers, and in going down a list of questions and engaging the subject.  Here are three steps to peeling the layers of the onion:

The only dumb question is the one that is not asked
People avoid asking questions for fear of looking stupid, but no one knows everything about everything.  Asking questions is not ignorance, it is empowerment.  You will miss every shot that you do not take and chances are, if you have a question, someone else has that same question in mind, too.  So ask.  Asking questions makes you curious, inquisitive, and interested in learning new things.  Asking questions is the antidote to ignorance, to confusion, and to uncertainty.

Asking questions also stops others from perceiving you as that guy.  You know the one – the self-professed smartest person in the room, the person who not only knows how to do your job better than you do but is also too happy to say so to anyone within earshot.  Where do you go when you believe that you know everything?  To the no-growth zone and when things stop growing, they die.
When you ask probing questions, good information tends to reveal itself if you deploy….

A laser, not a shotgun 
Don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to mind.  Questions are an attempt to elicit information, specific information, so they have to be thought out.  Ask questions that cannot be answered in yes/no fashion, ask questions based on the five Ws, and don’t ask questions that presume the answer.  If you know the answer, there is no point in asking the question.  if you are simply looking for confirmation, ask directly, don’t fish for the answer you want.  And if the answer violates your expectations, ask another question.

In addition, learn to be comfortable with silence.  Silence makes most people nervous; they can’t break it fast enough.  Embrace it; silence is often the mark of a good question that has caused the other person to pause and think before responding which means you should get a useful answer.  Silence also shows interest in the conversation because it shows that you…..

Listen to the answers that are elicited
Listening is grossly under-valued; you don’t learn anything by talking.  Just ask any beleaguered spouse about the value of listening.  Or any frazzled parent.  Good questions tend to elicit thoughtful answers, and thoughtful answers almost always contain a nugget that begs for a follow-up question.  If you’re not listening with purpose, then you are missing the opportunity to follow-up.

There is also an important tangential benefit in listening – it tells the other person that you value that individual’s wisdom, experience, and perhaps most important, the person’s time.  By asking for the time, you have already said “I believe you know things that are important, things that I should know about X.”  Don’t waste the opportunity by tossing softballs or looking to confirm your biases.

If you are unclear on an answer, repeat it back.  Not only does this ensure understanding, it also reiterates that you are attentive.  And if a person makes a good point but then veers into an unrelated ramble, don’t be afraid to interject.  Interject, not interrupt, with a question that says “you brought up something interesting a moment ago, let’s go back to that.”

This is not rocket surgery but life is in the details.  Have a conversation, not an interrogation.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The 5:06 email. That's 5:06 AM

Nothing good happens after midnight.  Everyone's mother said so.  And there is evidence to back up the claim:  If someone knocks on the door at four in the morning, it will not be to deliver good news; one time, the person knocking returned mom, who wandered off when her illness was really taking root.  A 3:18 phone call is never social, either, unless your friends include bail bondsmen.  But what to do with a 24/7 technology-driven communication environment that bends conventional notions of time?  Particularly when it's your name on the shingle? 
Time is much more fluid when you are your own boss. This is called The Accidental Entrepreneur for a reason.  Like anything new, working for yourself has a learning curve and one aspect of that is realizing that time is the thing over which you have the greatest control.  Think about it - in a corporate setting, the day starts at a set time and usually ends in the same fashion.  Yes, I know there the exceptions of flex time or telecommuting but, again, they are exceptions.  The rule for most of the workforce is that butts are expected in chairs at an appointed hour.

If you have an idea or a thought at five in the morning, you are far more likely to act on it - to contact a vendor, to send out an email or tweet, or to research something that clearly cannot wait till morning.  I saw this from customers in a previous professional life, when I worked a pre-set schedule.  Emails with unusual time stamps were not uncommon and invariably, they were came from people who ran their own shops.     
For many of us, there is a familiar tone to late night work, whether it evokes memories of an all-nighter in college or facing a professional deadline.  The dawn patrol, meanwhile, is largely learned behavior.

Like many of you, I found the concept of 8 a-m classes in college practically inhuman, a barbaric ritual concocted by university staff and faculty in conjunction with distant parents to be sure their progeny was productive, or something like it, at a "respectable" hour.  Then we graduated.  My professional life began with a brief stint working evenings, followed by an abrupt change.  The new duty time was 4:30.  No, the other one, the one where some folks are wandering home after those un-good things mom warned about.  It was an experience that turned 8 a-m into lunchtime.  By the way, people will look at you twice when you're eating spaghetti or the previous night's leftovers while they're getting their first cup of coffee.

So, as you sift through that overnight mail, somewhere between learning that a Russian bride has found you and the unexpected deposit to your account that is only a click away, there may be some actionable items.  While not overnight, this line came came right after Jamaal Charles scored his second touchdown for the Chiefs during the Monday night game but before Shane Vereen carried for the Patriots.  Is Shane related to Ben?  Turns out he is, in a distance way, not quite as distant as Tom Brady to a fictional Mike Brady, but distant nonetheless.  Would someone doing this on a 9-to-5 schedule regale you with equally useless nuggets?




Monday, September 22, 2014

The four groups of people in your life

How do you suppose "People Collector" would look on a business card?  It's a process with which I am getting very familiar as the new guy in a new town with a new business.  The  more people you know, the more new people you can meet and get to know, and the cycle repeats.  It's not just a good business practice, it is something most of us do in life to some extent.   Thus far, my collection has grown to include a wide range of industries and personalities.

Like any other collection, there will be the people you keep forever and guard zealously, the ones you will trade for others as circumstances dictate, the ones who can be bundled as introductions to still more people, and the ones who will be discarded at some point.  Unlike most other collections, people may move among the four primary groups that each of us has:  
  • people who can help you and will 
  • people who could help you but shouldn't or won't
  • people not in a position to help who are worth keeping 
  • people who, for whatever reason, have reached their shelf life 
The first group is obviously the most important and the one to spend most of your time cultivating.  There is the story of a baseball pitching coach explaining to one of his charges that the player's practice time would be better spent on perfecting his best pitch than improving his weaker ones.  The player was perplexed; this sounded counter-intuitive:  why spend time on what you already do well when there are other things that need improvement?  Because when faced with a challenge, people tend to go with their strength.  When faced with a dilemma, you're likely to turn to the people most likely to have the right advice.  

This group is the most likely to have a positive impact on you - it's the been-there-done-that group, the people you are most likely to ask for counsel or bounce ideas with, the ones you will likely turn to when dealing with challenges.  This is the part of the collection that you nurture, the names that roll from your tongue when asked about influential people in your life, the ones you will thank after good things happen.  This group also has the potential to grow over time; art collectors don't stop with one masterpiece and classic car people don't stop with one T-bird or one Mustang. 

How you handle the second group is a conundrum and there are differing schools of thought:  some believe this is a resource worth using; others say it's the worst idea imaginable.  This group will have members whose assistance could be valuable, but access to that financial or intellectual capital can come at a price.  It's not that they don't like you or don't want to succeed; in fact, people in this group likely want very much for you to succeed.  But they keep out of it for two primary reasons:  1) they think you'll be better off in figuring out the answers for yourself and 2) they worry that if they offer advice and it ends badly, it will harm the relationship. 

The third group is necessary for your sanity.  For the most part, these are your friends - they mostly want the pleasure of your company - a night out, a ballgame, non-work things.  They share your outside interests and outside interests are important.  Not even the most committed person can work 25 hours a day, eight days a week; put enough tension in any system and it will eventually fail, often with catastrophic results.  This group is your pressure valve release - you have cookouts, you watch ballgames, your kids and theirs may be friends, you share some war stories associated with work without any anticipated business outcome.

Then, there is the final group.  No one's life is static:  priorities change, there could be a falling out, or someone becomes too toxic to keep around.  There is nothing you can do about this and there is nothing wrong with it, either; it's just part of life.  When you graduate high school, you will not see 95% of your graduating class before your ten-year reunion.  When you graduate college, you will never see 95% of that class the rest of your life.  When you're young and single, most of your friends are young and single.  When you are involved or married, so are most of the people around you.  When you leave a company, you will also leave many of your colleagues behind except for the rare instances where certain people were part of the third group.

The status of your collection is a also a good barometer of where you.  Is one group predominant?  Has another been volatile or is it relatively stable?  No collector ignores the occasional taking of inventory.  Now if you'll excuse me, there are some potential new people I have to consider adding to my collection.  



Monday, September 15, 2014

The New Entrepreneurs

One of my new neighbors is an attorney.  Who is bent on doing something else for a living.  Sooner rather than later.  Her sentiment has a lot of company with one distinct exception – those who own their business.  A big part of the reason is the autonomy; people like having ownership of the decisions that impact their lives, even if those decisions involve the periodic stereotype of the business owner of someone who is never truly off the clock.  Opportunity, control, and freedom are also on the list.
The growth in entrepreneurship is at its highest level in 15 years.   A still-sluggish economy is part of the reason; for a large chunk of the workforce, spinning one’s wheels has become the new norm.  The average anticipated pay raise for employees this year is about 3%.  Weigh that against the increase in your cost of living; for the most part, it’s a wash.  That sameness is the impetus for wondering what else is out there, particularly among more seasoned workers. 
And that’s just the population still in the workforce; the labor participation rate is at its lowest since the late 70’s.  Think about that for a second.  Millions of people who are no longer counted in unemployment figures.  It defies reason to believe that each of those individuals has simply given up. 
My attorney friend couldn’t help but notice that her previous firm had a definite preference for people barely removed from law school.  My own experience as I was finishing graduate school was not much different.  There are few things more unusual than being interviewed by someone who, literally, is the same age as your children.  In an earlier time, experience carried an implied value.  Today, the primary implication seems to be “he’s going to want a lot of money” even if he doesn’t.  The secondary one is “he’s after my job” even when he is not. 
You have not truly lived until you have actually said to an interviewer “I’m not here for your job; I’m here for the one being advertised.  I’ve had your job and it has headaches I do not particularly want again.  On the other hand, I can help you in coping with those headaches and I will not add to them.”  That, evidently, is not convincing.     
A cursory Google search of why people become entrepreneurs yields more than 24-million responses, many of them like this.  None of this is to say that the process is all rainbows and unicorns.  Small business owners face a lot of worries that the typical employee does not – making payroll, coping with new government mandates and their costs, and the day-to-day of keeping a business humming.  But it seems those worries are the fuel that drives the decision in the first place – determining how to conquer uncertainty, controlling the calendar, and being accountable to that person looking at you in the mirror.     

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

When does yes mean yes?

The English language is a marvelous instrument, where even the simplest words either need legislation action to codify their meaning or become the topic of deep-thinker navel-gazing.  And that’s just in personal relationships.  Business dealings are a different bear to wrestle.  

No tends to mean no.  Except when it means ‘not now’, which is still a no of sorts but one with the potential to change.  That sort of no rears its head with things like auditions for movies or commercials, and sometimes with resumes.  It’s directed at a person or idea that does not answer the question of the moment but holds promise for the future, i.e. “you’re not what is needed for this role/job, but I like your background and there could be something down the road that works”.   

A bit more baffling is the maybe; it can mean no but the person is too polite to actually say so, or it can a bridge to yes by implying ‘tell me more’.  The latter version of maybe is all around the sales process; you have a prospect whose business has a need for something that you offer but the specifics need to be nailed down.  You have likely heard how people hate to be sold but love to buy; this fits in the maybe category, in the section where you differentiate between process and thinking. 

While process has its place, no one likes dealing with a process-driven person.  It’s like the news interviewer who has a ready list of questions and simply moves to the next one, never listening to any of the answers.  One customer asked me, “So, do you have the answer for me?”  My response was, “I tend to ask a lot of questions and the answers have a habit of revealing themselves.”  Maybe it’s because I used to be one of those news interviewers; if you are listening to the answers, what you hear should be spawning the next question.  And the interviewee notices this, too; people can tell when you’re paying attention or when you’re waiting for them to take a breath so you can ask the next question on the list.  

Which brings us to yes, which sometimes means maybe, which as previously mentioned, can mean just about anything depending on a person’s mood, the tides, that morning’s commute, or an argument from last night that is unrelated to you.  There are times when saying yes can be a problem but that is usually confined to thinking emotionally instead of logically.  We often say yes when no would have been the better answer because we don’t want to be perceived as jerks or the person asking is someone we value or it seemed like a good idea at the time.  

In graduate school, I did a project involving a book that highlighted the importance of saying no and how saying yes too often could be counter-productive because it chewed up time better delegated toward greater priorities.  The book put a premium on thought before action, on weighing the consequences that an immediate answer would have.   The word yes became a mirror twin of one aspect of the word no, as in “Yes, that sounds interesting and I would like to, but this is a bad time.  When might be better?”  That is far less harsh than a clear-cut no, it is tempered by having seen some value in the request, but it also preserves the pecking order of things in front of you.  

Salespeople love yes, of course; it usually means the cash register is ringing.  Just be sure that yes is the answer you want to hear.   Most people are familiar with the corporate version of the 80/20 rule; the key is differentiating whether the next person saying yes to you will be among the 80% or the 20%.  Many in the 80% will be little more than break-even customers; others will actually cost you money or created unnecessary heartburn.  

So to sum up, no usually means no.  Except when it means not now.  And yes tends to mean yes.  Unless it’s a guilty yes that may later turn into a no.  And maybe means whatever you want it to mean.  All clear?  

Friday, September 5, 2014

Six Months to Genius

One of the first things I was told in moving down this road was "set your genius aside for six months."  In other words, the wheel for this venture has already been invented and it has also been refined, so no need to try and  re-create it.  It's good advice; one of the curiosities of people is our desire to stamp something as our own, no matter what it is.  It may work in decorating a home or office, or in mapping out an exercise plan - a bit of personalization here, some customization there - but it is seldom a good idea when inside a larger framework that includes other people.  

Systems exist to guide activity and communication among the components of any organization.  They have been the subject of a great deal of academic inquiry, this being one example.   System theory began as a biological application but has since spread to multiple disciplines.  I am not going to belabor the particulars (though if you really want to get in the weeds, this is a good start); suffice it to say that most aspects of your life - work, home, play - involve some sort of system.  

Ironically, the concept of systems and advice like "set your genius aside for six months" are treated as anathema to entrepreneurs.  In a sense, the very act of entrepreneurship stems from the belief that an existing system could use some re-engineering.  And when the tweaking is done, what's left?  A new system.  That the next guy will want to tweak a bit further.  There is a "lather, rinse, repeat" nature to it, isn't there. 

Since Russ (he's the guy behind "set your genius aside...") has been doing this much longer than I have, I'll work with the plan.  In many ways, it makes life easier by eliminating any guesswork, providing a sort of road map for the ramp up process.  And you ladies know that guys tend to like maps; they certainly don't like asking for directions, so that is one dilemma already avoided.  

For the most part, I am a systems guy with perhaps one quirk - I like for things to make sense.  "Because we've always done it this way" is a horrible rationale.  "Because it works" is not hard to understand.  Things that work are less likely to inspire attempted fixes.  You know how the wheel analogy keeps coming up?  It's with good reason.  The wheel has been round for a long time.  Oh, sure; there are new alloys and new materials used in building wheels and a lot of new uses, but the basic concept is the same.  

Six months.  I'm on the clock.  I think Russ' advice came with two implied parts:  everyone is going to do some juggling within the system to reflect who they are but changing "happy" to "glad" is not a big deal.  Second, he has nothing to gain by setting me up for failure.  And with genius in storage, the game is on.