A Business Technology Place

Using history to organize your teams

What does the history of man and the advancements of civilizations have to do with business?

I recently followed a recommendation to read Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. The book was the winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction and provides theories and supporting arguments for why some civilizations throughout history survived and conquered other civilizations. Diamond supports the idea that societies persist and spread based on geographical and environmental factors rather than racial genetics.

Do business organizations parallel human societies?

On page 457 of the book Diamond explores the questions he received from many business leaders after they read his work. He sets-up the question as:

“What is the best way to organize human groups, organizations, and businesses so as to maximize productivity, creativity, innovation, and wealth? …. Should your collection of people be organized into a single group, or broken down into a small or large number of groups?”

Ah yes, one of the classic modern business dilemmas. Businesses are in a constant see-saw between a centralized and decentralized organization. Centralization is pushed to provide more standardization, economies of scale, and reduction of expenses. Decentralization is pushed to provide more innovation and closer customer relationships.

In his book, Diamond suggests that some level of fragmentation (decentralization) helped European advances in history because it created competition which led to innovation. Contrary to this, the unification of China appears to be a factor why it fell behind Europe in innovation during the colonization period. But India, which had even more fragmentation than Europe, didn’t advance as rapidly as Europe with technological innovations and colonization. That’s a very simplified look at Diamond’s discourse on the subject, but it leads him to suggest that the most optimal organizations have some level of decentralization in them.

The trick is to determine the right level of balance.

I promote a balance in a number of areas in the IT organization that I manage. This includes the number of in-house developers vs contract and “off-shore” developers, centralized software tools vs solution specific tools, and centralized processes vs sub-department processes.

photo credit: Leo Cullum

photo credit: Leo Cullum

A few things are certain with any approach:

  • People will point out the faults of the current organizational design and suggest that a change to another model is needed (based on the other model’s merits and not faults).
  • There is usually some level of second guessing by team members as they experience organizational results and look for ways to tweak the team setup to perform better.
  • There is a natural pull (almost like gravity!) that says we should organize differently. It’s the “always a better way” and “continuous improvement” approach to organization and processes.

I believe the answer depends on what you need from each sub-group in the organization.

IT, like other business departments, is further divided into group based on the type of service provided to customers. I believe groups like desktop/voice services and networking are best setup with a more central approach. This allows them to set to standards for equipment, general office software, voice equipment, etc. I look for this group to provide a consistent and predictable service to the organization. Less variety in what they support allows them to scale better.

The software development groups are tasked with providing innovation and helping the company be more competitive in the marketplace. As such, I like to have the software develop teams setup in a more decentralized organization. This gives them freedom to innovate and compete.

The project management, business analyst, and quality assurance groups benefit from a centralized approach as it helps them to reduce their toolsets and simplify processes. But they also benefit from a bit of decentralization so they can better match their processes to the software development teams.

The problems of any organizational design are always in the forefront to discuss, break-down, and analyze. I’m OK with that. As I said above, I think that’s a natural activity as we constantly look for ways to perform better. It’s neat to see correlations between Diamond’s study of human organization through history and the modern business world.  If you haven’t read Diamond’s book, it’s worth your time at least to skim and take-in some of the main theories.

Onward and upward!

Book Review – Man’s Search for Meaning

I recently completed Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Apparently I was late to the game as the Wikipedia page states “According to a survey conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress, Man’s Search For Meaning belongs to a list of the ten most influential books in the United States.”

I know why now. Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Jewish concentration camps during World War II tells his story. Frankl, a psychiatrist by trade, gives a thorough examination of the mental psyche of man during life threatening circumstances. He intermixes his findings with those from his private practice to give a balanced approach to the question “what is the meaning of life?” As you read Frank’s account of his first-hand experience in the Nazi concentration camps it’s natural to have mental anguish, frustration, anger, sadness, and wonder.

Frankl examines the heart of man both as a giver and receiver of punishment. He discusses the differences in the mental make-up of the men who survived the concentration camps and those that did not. There were patterns and Frankl uses the patterns as a basis for his teachings. He even discusses the challenges faced by those who were liberated. If you read this book, get ready for a mental battle. It’s tough reading and can really challenge your beliefs about the nature of man. But tough reading translates to rewards if you can persist. The rewards are self-examination, new learnings, and an opening for thoughtful dialogue with others.

On page 77 of the 2006 version Frankl writes,LifeOffer

“We had to learn ourselves and , furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the task which it constantly sets for each individual.”

The second part of the book explains the concepts in Logotherapy. That is the study that focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as man’s search for such a meaning. Frankl says that “this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.”

Frankl’s thoughts resonated with me because I recently lost both of my grandparents. They were married for 72 years and lived their lives together as one. When my grandfather saw that grandmother’s time was near he lost his reason for living. He lost his meaning and place in life. He passed-away just six hours after she did. Frankl observed similar situations in the concentration camp and in his psychiatric practice.

On page 111 he says “According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways:

  1. by creating a work or doing a deed

  2. by experiencing something or encountering someone

  3. by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering”

Frankl’s words provide opportunity for examining our inner beliefs and attitudes. I used his stories to think about my faith, my relationships, and my experiences. For me, the book was a good reminder that life has a purpose and that life is a kaleidoscope of relationships. What we do with with our situation and circumstances defines us. So control what you can control like your attitude, actions, and search for meaning. Onward and forward……

Book Review – Poke the Box by Seth Godin

Poke the Box by Seth Godin is a quick and easy read. While some may confuse it with a motivational type book, Godin’s points are a bit deeper. The two word summary is

Start Something.

Godin says “I’m merely encouraging you to start. Often. Forever. Be the one who starts things.” Starting things is like poking the box to see what will happen.The manifesto is a call for people to shed excuses, fear, and procrastination and to pursue their ideas. That’s certainly not a new principle. But Godin states his ideas in a clear, concise, and easy to understand format that worth your time to read.

He gives examples of individuals and organizations to backup his statements that people need to push forward with their ideas. One such example was the first Starbucks didn’t sell coffee and wasn’t the company we have come to know today. It sold coffee beans. But Jerry Baldwin’s idea to get started led to the suggestions from Howard Schultz to offer traditional espresso beverages. Godin’s point is that “Poking doesn’t mean right. It means action”.

This leads to the argument that one of the top reasons that people don’t initiate work is fear of failure. People and organizations let the fear of failure paralyze them because failure is viewed as a negative event. Again, not a new idea, but tolerating failures because we can learn from them, because it makes us better, or because we can adjust and move forward is usually just given lip service in our society.

Godin goes deeper into the idea of initiating work by touching on cultural norms of conformity. From schools, to churches, to corporate america, we are trained, encouraged, and rewarded for staying within set boundaries. I could directly relate to this concept and previously wrote about it in a post entitled are you crazy enough to create change?

I recommend this book for your library. It’s a simple concept, yet can be so difficult to master.  If you are a manager of people, encourage them to poke the box. If you are an team member then start your ideas. Godin says “soon is not as good as now.” Go!

Book Review: Your Career Game

I recently read Your Career Game: How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals by Nathan Bennett and Stephen A. Miles. Based on the title and reference to game theory, I expected the book would be a technical read and perhaps one that I only scanned for practical insights. What I found, was an easy to read book filled with many pages of interviews and practical straight talk about career progression. It was a definite value-add to my career journey and I found myself wishing I had read something like this in my twenties.

The interviews in the book are conducted with a diverse set of leaders from multiple industries. They are insightful as they dig deep into topics like mentoring, education, influence, political skill, and social intelligence. The business leaders reveal how they approach their career and the decisions they make. I found a few common themes within their responses. Most of them looked to expand the breadth of their experiences across different functional areas of a business. Many of them worked internationally, or saw international experience as a good opportunity to learn the core workings of a business. All of them had a close network of mentors to assist them with guidance in their maturation process.

Additionally, the authors go through several success factors for your career:

Understand the game better

If you consider the model that your career is a game, you need to seek to understand the game better. Just like a sports player must seek to understand the rules of their game to become a better player, professionals must  understand rules of the career game to better navigate its progression. This includes elements of self-knowledge, people skills, motivations, and intentions. There are are more players in the game than just yourself and there are rules from within and external to the organization that could effect the game.

Understand how different moves will affect your career

In game theory, the premise is to first understand all of the players in the game which may include co-workers, executives, your boss, and even your family. What are the interests of each of the players in the game? What do they hope to achieve? Once you understand the different players in the game then you can simulate the game based on the types of moves you believe they will make. As with a chess game, the best players think and simulate moves into the future rounds.

Improve you career agility

Your career agility is based on elements of your core make-up that allow you to react, plan, and make decisions based on your career. As I understood the author’s points in this section, you need to be agile in order to react to unseen circumstances and game elements that you didn’t anticipate.  Elements of your make-up that comprise your career agility include emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence, self-monitoring, influencing-up, resilience, empathy, authenticity, decision making, and political skill.  The bottom line is you need to understand yourself and you need to understand how to relate to others.

I thought I saw a purple cow

I read Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable by Seth Godin over the weekend because it is a work that is referenced from time-to-time in my other reading and Seth Godin has a good reputation within the marketing industry. The book is becoming a little aged at this point in time, as it was published in 2003. Despite the hype and reputation of the book, I didn’t feel like it lived up to what I was expecting. I jotted down four key thoughts that I remembered after finishing the book:

  1. Look for ways to make your product or service remarkable or memorable (like a purple cow) so that your most loyal audience will become evangelists for you. The idea here is that your most loyal customers will tell others within their circle of influence about your product and they’ll be more likely to listen to them rather than traditional advertising that most people have learned to tune-out.
  2. Don’t think outside the box, rather think around the edges. Innovate by offering the same product and service in ways that no one else is doing or that has not been tried by others in the past.
  3. Identify and serve a niche of customer. The point here is that you shouldn’t try to be all things to all people. If your product is too generic, it will be unremarkable and boring. Don’t be afraid to receive criticism from one segment because it will likely mean that you are appealing to a specific audience in another segment.
  4. Safe is risky because it’s boring and forgettable. The largest part of this discourse talked about large corporations or companies with mature products that make safe decisions in order to protect the business and profits for the product. To be clear on this topic, Mr. Godin wasn’t saying that safe decision making didn’t have its part in business. In fact he recommended that if you have a mature product that is healthy and bringing good profits that you do maintain the status for that reason. The profits should be used to explore new areas of business or new ways to position your existing product.  Without innovating and looking for new products and services your product will become unremarkable and die.

Now there were other points and takeaways from the book. But as I said, these are the ones that stuck with me as I finished the read. As I look back over this list, these are not new ideas or break-through thoughts. They are important concepts though and ones that many play-it-safe organizations don’t think about or realize. So the message of the book is important for all business leaders to understand. If the ideas are new to you or one’s you’d like to understand more about then pick-up the book. It’s a quick read. If they are concepts that you have already read and understand then you should move along. This isn’t the purple cow you thought you saw.