Where Gender Inequality Starts

Gender Inequality

We’re doing something wrong in promoting gender equality and I think it starts all the way back to how we name babies. We have a patrilineal naming tradition that asserts to a baby girl that her father is more important than her mother. To me this is the beginning of gender inequality.

As my daughter is now expecting my first grandchild and it is to be a girl, I want her to start life thinking that she is just as important as any boy who is born. To do that I’m advocating a new tradition that a girl’s last name be the same as her mother’s last name.

I’ve written an essay that got published in the Globe and Mail today. It explains a new solution to stop gender inequality at birth.

Pass it on and be a part of a new trend towards true gender equality.

Check out the essay here.

Bonehead Circles

Bonehead CircleOne of my faithful readers pointed out a comment I made in my last post about Open Dialogue. It was when I referred to my reluctance to speak up recently about a bonehead move by a co-worker.

He said that in his experience, “Maybe the problem is that boneheaded moves slip by because nobody actually pays attention to boneheads in the first place. The other thing is that some bonehead invited the bonehead to participate in the dialogue, so we’re faced with a self-perpetuating bonehead circle of life.”

And that one comment opened up a whole new window to business behaviour. There are bonehead circles that arise in business when one bonehead hires another one, and then another one, and before long you have a group of boneheads.

If you’re thrust into a circle of these boneheads, it may seem surreal. You might wonder why everyone around you is thinking or acting in such a strange way. This is not quite as bad though as when you start to agree with them or act in the same way. Then you must wonder, have you become a bonehead too?

I think this is what happens over time. You get one or two boneheads in a group and entropy sets in. Sooner or later everyone begins to think and act in the same way and you have a bonehead circle.

That’s when the problems start. Bonehead circles can’t see problems or opportunities. They don’t recognize danger or come up with new, innovative and creative ideas. When you’ve got a bonehead circle no one is able to criticize other members of the circle.

And the inevitable result is like watching a good business get flushed down the toilet, boneheads and all.

Open Dialogue

Open DialogueI was naughty the other day and am feeling slightly guilty about it. Essentially, I found myself not willing to share my honest opinion and thus breaching all my rules about open dialogue.

I have always said it is better in a startup and in working with a close team that everyone be free to open up, share his or her opinion in a constructive manner and let the chips fall where they may. Honestly and open dialogue being the best policies.

But I have been criticized for being too critical. (What’s with that?) And since I’m constantly trying to remind myself to use more emotional intelligence (not being noted for that skill), I hung back and didn’t share my honest opinion.

This has led me to struggle with trying to figure out the best balance. How do you practice open dialogue but not be seen as being critical when someone is about to pull a totally boneheaded move?

Some people are great with criticism and others totally shy away from it, abhor it. Do you change your behaviour for those who don’t like criticism or do you just let loose and figure it is their problem.

I can hear those of you who are emotional intelligence gurus trying to tell me that you can deliver a critical message in an open manner and not turn the recipient into a quivering pile of goo. But sometimes it is easier just to stop with the open dialogue and shut up.

What I have decided is that we really need a Festivus Pole at work, available every day. It can be used just like during Festivus, for airing of grievances.

That way, if you’re touching the pole you get a complete bye on critical dialogue. And maybe the pole might even make you think best about how to communicate criticisms in a constructive manner.


Startup Failure – We Need a New Word

startup failureI came to the realization the other day that we need a new term for startup failure. For some reason, articles such as this one, seem to link childhood failure in school and on the sports field with startup failure. But the linkage is just not there.

Let’s look at how we use the term failure.

If you take a course in school and do not pass, this is called a failure. And this is one place where the term is properly used. You have failed to pass.

Now in school again, if you lose a game of baseball, some people call this a failure but it is actually only losing a game. You haven’t failed when you lose a game because you can’t win every game the way you.

And look at the field of scientific research. I have a friend who is researching malaria. He has been at this for over 30 years. Is he a failure because he hasn’t cured malaria yet?

When you look at startups, we use the term startup failure to describe all sorts of different situations. If you look at the stats, something like 75% of startups fail, quite like batter stats in baseball.

But these aren’t really failures, they are startup attempts that are just like times at bat or scientific experiments. The problem with the term startup failure is that is lends such a negative connotation and a sense of shame to the entrepreneur.

When someone tries a new business venture they start out with a thesis or proposition that they need to test in the market. They try a bunch of tests until they get it right.

Some entrepreneurs get it right faster than others and they succeed. Others might be trying something more difficult and it may take longer but if they run out of money, they stop trying.

This unfortunately is called a startup failure when it really isn’t a failure. Much like a scientific experiment it is the act of stopping trying.

The Germans solve the problem by having so many different words that their meanings are nuanced and have much less chance of connecting with an negative emotional response. In German, academic failure is Schulversagen and liver failure is Leberversagen.

Startup failure in German is covered by the phrase Startfehler which effectively means Startup Error and this is closer to the mark but not there yet.

Since I have such a huge following in the blogosphere (not) I’m going to invent a new word which will immediately catch on. Going from the German for Stop Trying – “Stoppen zu versuchen”, I’m going to propose we use the term Versuchen for failure.

Thus a failed startup is now a versuchen startup. You can use the term in ways such as “I really versuched that startup” or “he’s a serial versucher.”

I feel better already.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Necessity is the mother of inventionI was preparing a talk for Techno at the Impact Centre recently recently on evaluating new innovations and I ran into this old proverb again: Necessity is the mother of invention.

I thought about it for a while and realized that the expression is very apt but that there is a corollary to it and that is that “Innovation depends upon Necessity.”

My thesis, which I presented in not quite so elegant terms to the Techno participants is that innovation only happens when people are forced to innovate. I’m not talking about the people who come up with innovative products or services but about necessity being a precondition to users actually adopting an innovation.

And why is this? It’s because for the most part, there are all sorts of natural barriers to innovation. You can probably summarize these natural barriers in a few buckets:

  • Costs of implementing the new innovation.
  • Risks of failure
  • Changes required to behaviour
  • Psychological barriers to change

And the biggest one of all I think is that people are generally lazy. They can expend no extra effort to do what they have always done but to innovate, they need to expend energy, time, and money.

I’ve seen lots and developed a few products and services that go absolutely nowhere in the market despite being real improvements over what is out there. When I look back at all of them I can find one of the barriers listed above standing in the way.

When all is said and done, there must be some powerful force to counteract the barriers to innovation. Unfortunately, having a better product just isn’t enough.

There must be some other force, whether it is regulatory, competitive, technological or economic that makes someone need to innovate. So I think the corollary works: Innovation depends on necessity.

A Culture of Helpfulness

Today’s TED Talk made me think long and hard about the issue of culture in startups, especially about how to create a culture of helpfulness. The research on the subject is quite clear, that helpful cultures outperform unhelpful ones hands down.

I’m struggling though with whether a culture of helpfulness is at odds with a results oriented culture. Is it possible to have both? If helpfulness leads to better results, should you focus on the end goal or on the process to get there?

I’m disturbed that I may have been mistaken my whole life, trying to create results oriented cultures when I know I would much rather work in a culture of helpfulness without the competition.

I left an organization a number of years because I just didn’t enjoy working there. I had ended up in a job I didn’t like and that was a good enough reason but fundamentally I didn’t like the organization.

Since then, I’ve struggled to define what it was exactly that I didn’t like. Over the years I have identified a number of factors that influenced my decision but until I watched this TED Talk, I didn’t see the whole reason. And that reason was that there was not a culture of helpfulness.

There may have been helpfulness within various teams in the organization but fundamentally there was no helpfulness between teams. Each team had its own budget and there was intense competition for and jealousy of other teams budgets. Results were team based and not organization based and there was intense competition to see who could be the shining star, individually or as a team.

This resulted in a general lack of helpfulness between teams, in fact it was so bad that teams would encroach upon each other, stealing good ideas and replicating programs. There was poor handoff of clients between teams and even a competition between teams for clients.

The problem was, that as bad as it was, the organization was not open to change. And his made it extremely frustrating when you needed to get things done in conjunction with another team. While the problems were easy to see and the consequences quite predictable, the organization was not open to analytical self criticism. Eschewing self-critical analysis, it buried conflict because candor was not safe.

Anyway, enough of my lamenting. Watch the video and think about your own organization. And if you need to either create or go find a culture of helpfulness.


Why Startups Succeed

There is a great TED Talk you should watch that went live yesterday. In the talk Bill Gross who is the founder of IdeaLab and has founded a lot of startups talks about some research he has done about why startups succeed and others fail.

“He has gathered data from hundreds of companies, his own and other people’s, and ranked each company on five key factors. He found one factor that stands out from the others — and surprised even him.”

And that factor is timing. It is his proposition that the one thing that contributed most to a business’s success was timing. The startups that came out at the right time succeeded and the ones that were early or late didn’t do as well.

Two other factors that he felt contributed to why startups succeed were the characteristics of the founding team and the degree of differentiation of the idea.

Unfortunately, as a recipe for success, that leaves a little bit lacking. You really should ask the question, then: “How do I get my timing right and how do I know this is a good time for my business?”

I think I have an answer for the question of timing. While I haven’t done the quality of the research that Bill has, I’ve been doing similar research for 15 years, trying to figure out why startups succeed. But more on that tomorrow.

Watch the talk, it’s only about six minutes long, and return tomorrow for my take on how you can get your timing right.

End If

UnknownSince I wrote a post on Monday entitled If, Then, Else, I figured I should follow up that one with ‘End If’. Bear with me here for a sec and you’ll see why this is relevant and interesting (at least to me.)

In computer terms End If is the command that is used to terminate a multiple line “If” command. (Written ‘endif’ for those who like to correct my spelling.) But I’m not talking about programming here but how you know when you’ve reached the end of a task.

The best case in point is in the development of process. How do you know when you’ve finished creating a process? I’m working with a growing company called Veloxsites that has developed a platform for partially automating the production of websites for small businesses. We are growing like gangbusters these days with all sorts of new resellers being signed up.

Signing up a new bunch of resellers in a short period of time has really shown how bad our on-boarding process was. To be frank, it really wasn’t much of a process and we were probably guilty of winging it.

So being good worker bees we worked hard to document the process and to create pre-packaged Statements of Work, Project Plans etc that we could re-use so we could reduce the complexity of the reseller on-boarding.

This wasn’t hard to do and we accomplished the task of setting up the new process in rapid order. But the funny thing was that when we thought we were finished, we kept getting funny questions from resellers that indicated that the process wasn’t meeting their needs.

So we looked at this process again and decided that we were creating all sorts of artificial hoops and barriers that resellers had to go through that they didn’t appreciate. We had adopted a big process mentality when it just wasn’t needed.

So when we could have said “End If” the process was documented and automated to the extent possible, we decided that we should “End If” the process was as short and painless to resellers as possible.

What we then did was take apart the process, trying to figure out which steps added value and which ones didn’t. As it turned out, few of these steps added value so we started chopping and then we really started automating.

What we have arrived at looks nothing like where we started. We decided that we could almost entirely eliminate the process of on-boarding resellers if we eliminated stages and skipped straight to the end stage of an implementation. We could also eliminate complexity by almost entirely automating the process.

We haven’t finished yet but we are planning to arrive at a point where a salesperson can on-board a new reseller in five minutes in the middle of a sales call. We can take a process that used to take two weeks and five people and bring it down to something trivial.

We decided to “End If” the process took us no work whatsoever.

If, Then, Else

If, The, ElseI was sitting with several people in a meeting recently trying to figure out why they just weren’t getting what we were talking about. It was one of those situations where we had had a meeting recently and made a number of key decisions. Now we were meeting to decide something else and the results of the first meeting clearly (to me at least) had implications on what we had to decide in the second meeting.

But we were effectively re-hashing the first meeting all over again. Not being very high on the emotional intelligence scale, I was getting visibly frustrated at our slow progress. And then it hit me; they just didn’t see how the results of the first meeting impinged on the second.

They didn’t get: “If, Then, Else.”

I’ve since been in a number of situations where I recognized the same thing occurring. One of them was in Spanish class where we were conjugating verbs and one fellow student couldn’t seem to get the pattern for conjugation of -ar verbs and how all verbs of like types have similar endings. Another “If, Then, Else.” problem.

I’m still trying to understand the problem. Is it an inability to see how the two situations are similar or is it an inability to transfer the conclusion from one situation to the other? Or even worse, could it be both?

I suppose this is the foundation of logic and reasoning. I’ve tried to figure out if an “If, Then, Else” failure is a failure in inductive, abductive, or deductive reasoning but I get a little lost in the definitions of these so I’ll leave that to another time.

Whatever it is, a person who gets “If, Then, Else” (computer scientists and engineers)  tends to get very frustrated with people who don’t get it.

Since I would rather work with people who “get it” rather than those who don’t, I’m trying to figure out how you can screen for “If, Then, Else” in an interview. I’ll add it to the list of things you want to hire for which now include:

  • If, Then, Else ability (logic and reasoning)
  • Attitude (as opposed to aptitude)
  • Emotional Intelligence

Is Disorganization the New Normal?

disorganizationI have had a number of conversations recently with people who were lamenting the state of disorganization in their companies. The stories revolve around people spending too much time getting stuff done due to a lack of process or an inability of others to follow process. Apparently this results in much crazy making and general confusion.

I thought back to places I worked years ago and I must admit until recently, disorganization was not as much of a problem. Things didn’t happen as fast and changes weren’t needed quite as often. So when disorganization occurred as it inevitably did, there was enough time to sort it out before it became soul destroying.

But I have worked in several places recently that were crazy places and in one in particular, process was not valued so the place just got crazier the more people there were. This was supposed to be a good thing as it was supposed to foster innovation. I guess some people think they thrive in a state of constant turmoil.

I’m working now with a client that devolves into confusion on a regular basis as the company grows and experiences new growth pains. Each new situation results in disorganization but the difference is that the people there actually like the addition of process as they see how it reduces complexity and saves them time. So whenever there is confusion, we work to add small light processes to eliminate the nonsense.

The difference between the two places though is a willingness to embrace process, people who will step up to develop it, and an appreciation of how to implement process.

And I think that this is the essential difference between sanity and crazy-making. There are not enough workplaces in the knowledge economy that embrace process and as these organizations grow they become more and more disorganized. In these places, disorganization is the new normal.